International expansion in sight for Row 44

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Having secured a high-profile customer for its satellite-based, in-flight connectivity system Row 44 is preparing to gain further traction in North America and move into the transatlantic and European markets.

The California-based firm yesterday won a huge endorsement from Southwest Airlines when the domestic US giant announced plans to rollout the Row 44 system across its entire fleet, which currently numbers well over 500 Boeing 737s, following a four-aircraft trial.

For Southwest, which has watched competitors quickly adopt Aircell's Gogo broadband system, the decision to partner with Row 44 came down to a number of key factors.

"For us, it really was about being able to control the price point that our customer sees," says Southwest manager, product development Angela Vargo. She adds that the overall bandwidth provided by Row 44 will give Southwest "a bigger, broader more robust solution" that more closely resembles "an at-home experience".

Row 44 uses Ku-band transponder capacity to bring connectivity to airborne aircraft. In contrast, Aircell - which owns an exclusive 3MHz spectrum license in the USA - operates over an air-to-ground (ATG) link and is supported by a broad network of cell towers.

Row 44 president Gregg Fialcowitz claims ATG aircraft connectivity is currently limited "to a layer of 2.2 megabits" per second data rate. He believes that once Aircell's ATG system becomes widely used, it will run into spectrum limitations and "require more spectrum".

"ATG is always going to be limited by the amount of spectrum allotted by the FCC," claims Fialcowitz.

Ku technology, on the other hand, has "a plethora of transponder capacity" and can support data rates of up to 30 megabits per second, says the Row 44 executive, although the aircraft modem at present can only handle speeds of up to 10 megabits.

Aircell says its network will be able to support vast equipage of Gogo on the US fleet and that it will be able to keep pace with growing demand. The company has been adding cell sites and using 'sectorization' to continue ramping up the capacity of its network.

Sectorization involves adding additional antenna to existing towers. "Since Gogo Inflight Internet service relies on the same cellular technology that ground-based cellular service providers use, we benefit from every technical advance and best practice in that industry (e.g., using cell splitting and sectorization to coax exponential growth in capacity out of a cell site)," Aircell CTO Joe Cruz said recently.

Asked to weigh in on the bandwidth debate, in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFE&C) consultant Michael Planey says: "In the in-flight connectivity marketplace, what we've seen from all of the competitors about what the other guy can't do and in some of those cases we've never run into the problems that are being pointed out.

"We are expecting the need for bandwidth to grow but at the same time, over time, the technology to make better and more efficient use of the bandwidth will come into play. Row 44 currently has as much bandwidth as it could need for the next five years, while Aircell's long-term strategy relies on terrestrial network technology in the form of 4G and LTE to eventually reduce the bandwidth burden that they may face."

Southwest intends to begin equipping its aircraft with the Row 44 system - including fuselage-mounted AeroSat antennas - in the first quarter of 2010. However, the pace at which the fleet will be equipped has not yet been determined. "We don't have a solid timeframe for that yet," says Vargo, noting also that certain specific details concerning the cost and financing of equipage are still being worked out.

From a production standpoint, Row 44 says it could provide the necessary equipment to install the system across Southwest's fleet within one year. The carrier's own operational logistics, however, will determine the timeline, says Fialcowitz.

Southwest is still testing various price points for the service. Planey believes, however, that traditional pay-for-service revenue models will not be enough to sustain in-flight connectivity offerings in the long-term, and that carriers should look instead at the role that airborne communications will play in their overall information technology (IT) network.

Delta Air Lines, for example, is understood to be exploring how it can view each of its Gogo-equipped aircraft as a node on its network. The carrier is in the process of building a business case for developing an information system - dubbed FOCIS - that would be used across operational divisions like flight operations, ramp operations, in-flight services, dispatchers, and maintenance personnel.

"I think that that is the essential key to making the systems sustainable in the long term," says Planey.

"I have been on record in many places saying that the passenger flight based revenue model will not generate enough dollars to cover the costs of the airline and their suppliers and the key to sustainability is going to be a reduction in operating cost and an improvement in operational efficiency with the airline using this bandwidth."

Row 44 may soon find itself ramping up production for Alaska Airlines, which has been trialling Row 44 on Boeing 737 aircraft with the intent to offer the service fleet-wide. Fialcowitz notes that Alaska is "a very cautious, analytical airline", but says an announcement may occur in the near-term.

Other deals in North America are expected to be forthcoming. Says Planey: "The entire international fleet of every major airline is still up for grabs and Aircell does not have a marketable solution to address a long-haul transoceanic segment. So you've seen American, US Airways, United, all agreeing to only certain parts of their domestic fleet and as I said at the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) connectivity workshop in Everett, there is no one size fits all solution, unless you have a one size fits all fleet."

Aircell has said it is working on a hybrid solution that would allow carriers to offer ATG-based connectivity on domestic routes, but transition to a Ku-band solution on overseas flights.

Fialcowitz says Row 44's current emphasis "is on equipping the fleet we have" but he says Row 44 is also readying to offer its service on "transatlantic and European" routes. The company has an agreement to equip Norwegian's fleet of Boeing 737s.