Row 44 plans commercial trials for January

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Row 44 in January expects to begin testing its Ku band-based in-flight connectivity system on commercial aircraft even as the firm continues to face opposition from competitors.

The California-based company has not yet revealed whether the trial will take place on Alaska Airlines or Southwest Airlines. Both carriers have signed up to test Row 44's broadband system on Boeing 737 aircraft.

However, in an interview with USA Today, the contents of which have been confirmed by Row 44, company 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."

In early December a Southwest spokesperson said installation of Row 44's system on a single 737 was scheduled for the 16th of the month and that a trial would get underway in January. But Southwest CEO Gary Kelly was far less precise when on 17 December he told attendees at a Wings Club luncheon in New York that if Southwest gets a "go decision" than the trial will occur in the "first half" or possibly the "first quarter".

Kelly said equipage of the entire fleet - which numbers 535 aircraft - "will probably take a couple years".

Row 44 on 8 May of this year filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for permanent authority to operate an aeronautical mobile-satellite service (AMSS) in the conventional Ku-band segment.

In its application Row 44 proposed to operate up to 1000 transmit/receive terminals aboard commercial and private aircraft in order to provide two-way broadband communications to passengers and flight crew, including email, Internet access, and virtual private networks.

But Row 44's proposal has come under fire from competitor ViaSat as well as JetBlue Airways subsidiary LiveTV, which is actively exploring the use of Ku band fixed service satellite (FSS) spacecraft to provide broadband services to its customers.

In a letter to the FCC LiveTV urges the regulator to require Row 44 to clearly demonstrate in writing how its system design would operate "on a non-interference basis" or to "otherwise bring its transmit power levels into line with those the commission has approved before in the case of aeronautical FSS applications".

Only after Row 44 makes such a showing should the commission allow the company to conduct testing to determine whether its theoretical design will work in practice, suggests LiveTV.

Despite these apparent obstacles, Row 44 remains confident it will obtain a permanent AMSS license.

"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 a Row 44 spokesman.

In the interim Row 44 has been using temporary FCC approvals to flight test its system on a Grumman Albatross testbed aircraft in US airspace.

Southwest believes Row 44's temporary license will allow the carrier to kick start the commercial trial but says the carrier won't be able to charge passengers until permanent authority is awarded to the firm.

Row 44's Guidon in his interview with USA Today says the in-flight Internet offering will cost less than $10. Further specifics about the fee strategy have not been revealed. However, Guidon does make a number of other disclosures, namely that Row 44 intends to have its service operating "across the Atlantic and all over Europe" in the middle of 2009, will offer cell phone connectivity in 2009 where it is allowed, and will also be "providing TV along with our data".

To the latter point, Row 44 is "talking about a number of recognizable channels directly broadcast to servers on the plane", says Guidon.

While Row 44's solution relies on Ku band satellites, Aircell's now well-known Internet service, Gogo, is operated over an air-to-ground (ATG) link. Thus far the Colorado-based firm has secured deals with Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Virgin America and a fifth carrier. Passengers on certain American, Delta and Virgin America flights already have access to the service.

Aircell has not yet revealed the identity of the fifth customer.

United Airlines previously made known its interest in in-flight connectivity, saying in 2006 that it was "evaluating several systems" for offering broadband service domestically over an ATG link, and internationally through a satellite link. It is not immediately clear if United is still pursuing this strategy.

US Airways is also planning to eventually offer connectivity to passengers. However, a spokesman with the carrier says testing is not like to happen "anytime soon".