Row 44 poised to add inflight GSM services

Washington DC
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Row 44 is close to adding a global system for mobile communications (GSM) services to its inflight connectivity offerings, said John LaValle, chief of the Califorina-based inflight connectivity firm.

"We're actually pretty far along in terms of what our planning is, right down to having identified hardware vendors and relationships with [telephone companies] in that regard, LaValle tells Flightglobal.

Row 44 has been testing various SMS and telephony services "on and off for the better part of a year", LaValle says. The company has installed a picocell in its Grumman HU16B Albatross testbed aircraft to achieve this and says that it has seen positive results.

"SMS products is something the company is targeting, and we think we'll be very successful in that regard," says LaValle.

The connectivity company filed a request with the US Federal Communications Commission in 2011 for an experimental license to test integration of GSM in a simulated cabin environment. In that document, Row 44 indicated it sought a license to test two-way voice, SMS and general packet radio services (GPRS) data.

Row 44 will be initially focused on bringing the technology to customers flying in European, Middle Eastern and Asian markets, where other connectivity providers have already had some success in deploying their own GSM solutions. The USA will not be an immediate entry point into the market, as regulatory limitations currently prohibit passengers on commercial airlines from using cellular phones' 800 MHz frequency in flight within US airspace.

GSM allows passengers to access data, voice and mobile services through roaming agreements with their telephone providers. Unlike wi-fi, travellers pay for the service on their telephone bill rather than through a separate charge during the flight.

The competition for inflight mobile voice and data services is limited to a few key players. These include Aeromobile, majority-owned by Panasonic Avionics, and SITA subsidiary OnAir, which provides mobile services and connectivity for Thales' TopConnect system but considers itself an independent provider.

Row 44 did not provide a specific timeline for when it will offer the service commercially, but says it could provide the technology relatively quickly to airlines after securing the necessary approvals.

"When an airline tells us we want that capability, it will not take us very long to complete the packaging of the development cycle to be able to provide it to them, once the appropriate regulator channels have been cleared," says LaValle. "We're pretty far along in our understanding of that product."

Row 44 is close to having 500 aircraft on four continents flying with its Ku-band connectivity service, largely comprised of Southwest Airlines' 417 Boeing 737-700s and -800s. The airline said last month that it would be offering on-demand video services in addition to Row 44's IPTV product that includes eight channels streamed to passengers' personal electronic devices. The carrier began testing the television service in June.

In January, Global Eagle closed a transaction to acquire Row 44 and a majority stake in German content specialist Advanced Inflight Alliance to provide airlines with solutions that include both connectivity and content.