Southwest's massive 737 fleet to be equipped with Row 44 Wi-Fi

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US low-cost giant Southwest Airlines has opted to equip its entire Boeing 737 fleet with Row 44's high-speed, Ku-band-based Internet solution, in a move that will step up competition in the US in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFE&C) sector and gives added credibility to startup Row 44.

The announcement comes less than two weeks after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted permanent authority to Row 44, a crucial award achieved by the California-based firm after a lengthy battle with a would-be rival played out in FCC documents.

Row 44's system is currently installed on four Southwest 737s. In a statement this morning Southwest says it will this fall "be moving to the next step of certifying Southwest's full fleet".

It plans to begin to rollout of the in-flight Wi-Fi solution on the rest of its fleet starting in the first quarter of 2010. According to Flightglobal's ACAS database, Southwest operates a total 545 737s, a mixture of -300s, -500s and -700s. It also holds orders for a further 91 737-700s.

Pricing for in-flight Wi-Fi has not yet been announced by Southwest. The carrier has been testing a variety of price points for the service and says it will continue to do so through the end of 2009.

"We have concluded our testing for inflight Wi-Fi and are very happy with both the technical performance of the system and the response of customers who have used it," says Southwest senior vice president of marketing and revenue management Dave Ridley.

"We are pleased to be continuing with our plans to offer satellite-enabled broadband access through California-based Row 44."

Row 44 CEO John Guidon says the company "is thrilled to be the in-flight Wi-Fi service of choice for one of the most customer-focused airlines in the world".

Alaska Airlines is currently trialling Row 44. The carrier has previously said it intends to go fleet-wide with the satellite-based solution, which is able to operate on over-water flights.

Row 44 is getting a later start in the US in-flight connectivity market than Aircell, whose air-to-ground (ATG)-based broadband system Gogo has been installed on over 500 aircraft in the US fleet, including on the entire fleets of AirTran Airways and Virgin America.

Delta Air Lines is in the process of equipping its entire fleet with Gogo, and American Airlines has earmarked a large portion of its domestic fleet for installation. Other Gogo customers include Air Canada, Northwest Airlines (whose fleet will be equipped after merger partner Delta is finished), US Airways and United Airlines.

Aircell's system cannot support overseas connectivity. However, the company is working on a hybrid solution that would allow carriers to offer the ATG-based service on domestic flights, but transition to a Ku-band service on over-water flights.

Richard Owen, former executive director of the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA), believes there is a high probability that Aircell and Row 44 are exploring how they might cooperate on a hybrid offering.

"I have no doubt that those conversations are probably already happening not only between those two major players in the marketplace, but also among other players who kind of operate in this area who may offer some other solutions that could make the Internet access as seamless as possible across the water, across other countries," says Owen.

"And I'm sure there is direct competition between those two that you named where necessary but also certainly cooperation where it makes sense for them to be able to team up and offer the best solution for airlines or a particular airline where necessary. So yes, I think there are a number of players out there in the marketplace that can provide different solutions and I'm sure they're already talking to position themselves for success as to however this might shake out."

Row 44 also faces competition in the Ku-band space from Panasonic Avionics, which is offering its own high-speed Internet service under the brand eXConnect. Panasonic is understood to be working with Lufthansa to reignite the German carrier's high-speed Internet service, which was previously provided by now-commercially-defunct Connexion by Boeing.