A ‘Virgin’ Go Round For Sky-High Broadband

If you really can’t bear to leave the e-mail behind when you fly, you
won’t have to for very long. Virgin America, the newest airline navigating
U.S. skies, and wireless data and voice communications provider AirCell,
announced a partnership this week to offer broadband Internet for U.S.

The service will allow Virgin America passengers to access the Internet
using either Virgin America’s Red inflight entertainment system or their own
Wi-Fi enabled laptops, smartphones, PDAs, BlackBerrys and portable gaming
systems. Virgin America just started offering flights last month.

While in flight, and under Virgin America’s “mood lighting,” passengers
will be able to use the service to check e-mail, surf the Web, tap into an
office network, stay current on the latest news and all the other stuff
people while away their time online with.

AirCell’s air-to-ground cellular network transmits and receives data
between the ground and the aircraft at broadband speeds. It scored
the 3 MHz of spectrum for $31.3 million in a Federal Communications
Commission auction. U.S. airline JetBlue took 1 MHz in the same auction for
$7 million.

At the time of its license win, AirCell said that because the system will
use commercially available technology and a direct air-to-ground link, its
installation and operating costs will be very affordable, enabling U.S.
airlines to safely provide the connectivity their passengers are demanding.

Virgin America and AirCell will announce the cost of the service when it
launches sometime in 2008. But whether U.S. travelers will buy into the
flying Internet remains to be seen.

This isn’t the first go round with broadband in the skies.

Boeing’s Connexion service, which launched in
2001, was to supply passengers with broadband for a flat fee of $26.95 for
long-haul flights or $9.95 per hour. But last year the airline abandoned the
due to lack of interest. It attracted only 12 airlines, mostly
Asian and long-haul carriers.

“Over the last six years, we have invested substantial time, resources
and technology in Connexion by Boeing,” said Boeing CEO Jim McNerney at the
time. “Regrettably, the market for this service has not materialized as had
been expected.”

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