Row 44 sees commercial trials within weeks; eyes the Thames

Despite the apparent obstacles facing Row 44, the firm is confident that commercial testing of its Ku band-based connectivity system will begin within weeks!!!

In an interview with USA Today, Row 44 CEO John Guidon says:

“We’ll be deploying in North America commercially in 2009. That means very heavy rollout. We’re already working with Southwest and Alaska. We already have FAA certification to install the equipment. The test to customers will be in January. That’s when you see it getting on planes.”

I’ve asked a Row 44 spokesman to confirm the report and he says: “Yes, the contents of John’s USA Today interview are all accurate, including his mentions of the January testing of our system.”

Southwest 737.jpgRow 44 has been using temporary FCC approvals to test its system on an Albatross testbed aircraft. These tests – and Row 44′s application to the FCC – have come under fire from competitors.

The California-based firm awaits permanent FCC approval. But it remains equally confident it will get the regulator’s stamp of approval.

“As for the FCC approval, that’s a lengthy process but is going smoothly. We’re happy with the progress we’ve made and with our interaction with the FCC but we understand this takes time and can’t be rushed,” says the Row 44 spokesman.

And remember, Southwest Airlines believes it can move forward with offering Row 44′s Ku band-based connectivity to passengers for free until Row 44 receives permanent approval (then it will charge – apparently less than $10, according to Guidon’s comment below!!!)

Right then, there are a number of outstanding questions. Will the aforementioned trial be on Alaska or Southwest or both? (Southwest CEO Gary Kelly recently gave a conservative estimate that trials could begin in the first half.) Will ViaSat and LiveTV’s objections to Row 44′s application succeed in thwarting the firm’s plan? And for those of you who are following my Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory metaphorical storyline, will Row 44 be awarded a golden ticket ? (If it gets up and running on Alaska and/or Southwest then it will be incredibly well-placed to secure the big dogs - foreign carriers that loved Connexion by Boeing, for example). 

Here are some other noteworthy quotes from USA Today’s Q&A with Guidon. The juiciest bits are highlighted (note the comany’s plan to land that Albatross aircraft on the Thames river).

In the middle of the year, we will…have service across the Atlantic and all over Europe. We have global aspirations. We’re making sure we have traction in each market and can see profitability before we move forward.”

We’ll also be offering cellphone connectivity in 2009 where it is allowed and where airlines ask us for it. I know this has become a political hot potato in the U.S. We’re clear on this. Customers, for us, are airlines. We’ll do what airlines want us to do. We have the technology to offer cellphone connectivity.”

In 2009, we’ll be providing TV along with our data. We can integrate with seatback monitors. We’re certainly going to be offering (TV) over the laptop (via Wi-Fi). We’re talking about a number of recognizable channels directly broadcast to servers on the plane.

“We do a tremendous amount of testing before we release gear to customers. Much of the testing is on a 1950 Grumman Albatross flying boat. We recently landed this flying boat next to the Queen Mary in Long Beach (Calif.) for a trade show. In 2009 we plan to land it on the Thames next to Tower Bridge in London. That’s going to be interesting if we get that done and get authorities to agree to it.”

“People who have been on the system have been very pleased with the speed and solidity of the system. When airlines are testing it, they try very hard to overload it and to cause it to slow down. And they’ve been pleased with the system.

“When we compare ourselves to Connexion, we think in terms of fives. We’re approximately one-fifth of the weight of the Connexion systems. Less than one-fifth of the effort to install. And we’re five times better in cost per bit. From the public, everybody is hoping for a low price. Row 44 agrees and we can provide low price.” [Guidon says the price will be lower than $10 a day, according to USA Today].

“(In satellite connection), it’s unavoidable that there’ll be a break in connection. But the system is supposed to be robust and pick up where it left off. We’re aiming for a system…well above 97% in availability at any time.”

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