Trial of Row 44 on Alaska 737 delayed

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A trial of Row 44's Ku band-based connectivity service on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 has been pushed back by at least a few months.

The delay comes as news emerges that Row 44 faces opposition from competitor ViaSat to its application for a key US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval.

An Alaska spokeswoman says the Row 44 trial is "on hold" until early 2009 but assures that the carrier remains fully committed to testing the high-speed Internet service.

Plans had been in place for Alaska to test Row 44 this fall on a single 737.

"The Alaska trial was indeed scheduled for September/October, however, we encountered some late-breaking delays with the final certification of parts by one of our suppliers," explains Row 44 president. Gregg Fialcowitz.

"We were able to work to assist the supplier, but this extra effort caused a delay to our trials. However, those issues are behind us and we successfully completed our first Alaska Airlines installation several weeks ago."

The installation process for Row 44's system has been broken into two separate supplemental type certifications (STCs) - one for the components/wiring inside the aircraft and a second for the external components, including the ring, radome and antenna.

The STC for the inside of the aircraft was issued several weeks ago, but the second STC was not awarded until 26 November, the day before the US holiday of Thanksgiving.

"Because of Alaska's busy holiday season, the trial aircraft had to be returned to service before the second STC was granted," says Fialcowitz.

"We expect to reinstall the external components after the holidays and commence the trial at that point. Alaska still intends to move forward with a single aircraft trial ahead of the fleet-wide deployment."

In addition to Alaska, Southwest Airlines intends to trial Row 44's system on four 737s. Row 44 has received parts manufacturing approval (PMA) for the line replacement units (LRUs) and expects to receive PMA on the external components in time to begin installation on the first Southwest trial aircraft on 16 December, says Fialcowitz.

"We don't have definitive durations for the trials for either Alaska or Southwest, but we anticipate around 30-plus days."

Row 44 is presently testing the system on an Albatross testbed aircraft. Fialcowitz says the firm "has been flying the Albatross all over the place, testing and showing off the system/service in-flight" under a temporary FCC license.

However, Row 44 continues to await a crucial clearance from the regulator. On 8 May the firm filed for an application for permanent authority to operate an aeronautical mobile-satellite service (AMSS) in the conventional Ku band segment.

That authority has not yet been granted. "We're presently operating in the US under a temporary FCC license and expect our permanent license shortly," says Fialcowitz, noting that the company has received its permanent licenses to operate in Canada and Mexico.

Row 44 has run into opposition from competitors. ViaSat, which recently announced plans to offer Ku band-based connectivity to airlines, on 27 June filed a petition to deny Row 44's application.

Holder of an AMSS license to provide similar services to airlines, ViaSat claimed that Row 44's application fails to provide sufficient information to determine whether the proposed operations meet the FCC's two-degree spacing requirements.

Additional petitions were later filed by ViaSat, as well as Arinc and Boeing, which asked the FCC not to grant Row 44 any authorization until alleged technical issues involving the firm's operations are resolved.

A FCC spokesman says Row 44's application is "something that does have priority with us" but that a timeline for a decision has not been announced.