Last week Row 44 announced it has received approval from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate over the Atlantic, and laid claim to the distinction of being “the only provider allowed to operate and charge for in-flight broadband connectivity on transatlantic flights”.
If I may borrow a catchphrase from the late Gary Coleman’s Diff’rent Strokes days: “What you talking about, Willis?”
How can Row 44 make this assertion when Lufthansa’s FlyNet Ku-band in-flight Internet service – supported by Panasonic Avionics and T-Mobile – was formally re-launched on 1 December, is installed on 12 aircraft, will go live on an additional four aircraft in the next few weeks, and will cost passengers money from 1 February?
I tapped Row 44′s new chief commercial officer Howard Lefkowitz for some answers and, much to my surprise, he was willing to talk to me (quite the departure from Row 44′s curb-side snub of RWG in July 2009…damn, time flies).
“We are now duly authorized by the federal government pursuant to a particular authorization to provide this service and to charge for it. It is not provisional. It is a completed FCC document with authorization [for the T11N North Atlantic Oceanic Coverage Ku satellite]. Whether [Panasonic's] provisional activity calls for them to be able to charge, I can’t tell you. Whether their provisional thing can be taken away, whether they’ll get a final version, I can’t tell you. I don’t know the answer. I know that they are provisional today. I know that in general there is a lot of noise out there, and people say things and make promises the way they are not portrayed. The statement we made, as far as I know, is accurate. We are the only ones at this stage that have the official authority of the governing body to do this. It doesn’t mean that they can’t or that they won’t. It means that today [Panasonic is] provisional, and they [Lufthansa] are not charging for it [in-flight Internet].”
I’m sure Lefkowitz will forgive me for pointing out the obvious – that Row 44′s press statement rather conveniently fails to mention that Panasonic has the authority, albeit provisional at present, to charge for in-flight Internet on the North Atlantic route covered by the T11N satellite footprint.
Referencing its authority to conduct market studies of in-flight Internet in US airspace on Lufthansa aircraft, including its ability to charge for said service, a Panasonic spokesman says:
“Lufthansa is currently providing free service under this authority, and intends to initiate revenue service shortly. Panasonic has consulted with the FCC staff to confirm that initial revenue service, in which we will study traffic volumes, network loading and related data at chosen price points, is permitted under our existing authority during the pendency of [Panasonic's] commercial license application.”
So what does that mean? It means that Panasonic was able to charge for the in-flight Internet service before Lufthansa’s 30 November press flight, could start charging for the service today, and intends to be able to charge for the service in the foreseeable future, according to the firm.
Lufthansa, meanwhile, says it will begin charging for FlyNet on 1 February.
A Lufthansa spokeswoman tells RWG:
“The service is currently being offered on a complimentary basis during this introductory period because Lufthansa wants to give its customers the opportunity to become familiar with the service free-of-charge. Simultaneously, we continue to further equip our long-haul fleet with FlyNet in order to be able to offer a high availability after the initial introduction period.”
Suffice it to say that the row between Row 44 and Panasonic – which has been playing out in FCC filings, as first highlighted here – has escalated. I also think it’s fair to say that Row 44 intends to make life as difficult as possible for Panasonic at the FCC (perhaps even as difficult as ViaSat made things for Row 44 when the latter firm was seeking FCC authority).
But what about ViaSat, which provides Ku-band satellite-based in-flight connectivity to business aircraft operators (and which is working a Ka-band deal with JetBlue)? What does ViaSat think of Row 44′s claim about being the only provider able to charge for in-flight broadband over the Atlantic?
Says ViaSat director of regulatory affairs Daryl Hunter:
“We see marketing claims like this all the time, “we’re the first”, “we’re the fastest”, or variations of that theme. But in a number of cases, we know that as a minimum, we had already had an experimental or commercial license to do the same thing already, and so there’s a chance that others may have as well.
“We’ve been providing transatlantic service for several years, either directly ourselves or via ARINC’s SKYLink service, which was developed and operated by ViaSat. (T11N is one of the points of communication we are authorized to use.)
“To top it all off, once your feet [are] wet and outside US jurisdictional waters and associated interference region, you don’t need a FCC license anyway, so for that matter, Panasonic could operate service on transatlantic flights once outside US jurisdiction too even though they don’t yet have a FCC license.”