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WiFi In the Sky

Traveling workaholics can once again take heart. Itasca, IL-based Aircell is getting ready to launch their new in-flight Wi-Fi service, called gogo, on American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. American will reportedly start offering Wi-Fi access later this year on 15 of its 767s, with plans to eventually increase that to 500 planes. Virgin plans to equip its entire fleet.

Aircell's pricing doesn't sound too bad either. They plan to charge $12.95 for cross-country flights and $9.95 for flights of three hours or less. Given the ridiculous prices that airport Wi-Fi services charge for the hour or so you're on the ground, it might be worth it to wait until the plane takes off. Aircell is currently looking into partnerships with iPass and aggregators like T-Mobile and Boingo.

The company reports that the network is operational today. The on-board equipment will communicate with Aircell's network of 92 antennas spread across the country. Each antenna can reportedly reach planes up to altitudes of 45,000 feet in a 350-mile radius. They plan to expand the ground network to 500 antenna sites. The air-to-ground technology is a customized version of Qualcomm's EV-DO Rev A, the 3G technology used by CDMA-based cellular carriers. Aircell says they can migrate to Rev B or LTE at some future time.

Given the network capacity, delivering adequate performance may be a challenge. Aircell has a licensed 3-MHz channel across the US, Canada, and Mexico in which they hope to get a data rate around 3 Mbps; that would be the total upstream and downstream capacity for an entire plane. The onboard equipment will come from Meru Networks, and with compression and on-board caching, Aircell says their customers should get downstream speeds around 2 Mbps.

If Aircell can deliver that kind of a data rate (and that's a big "if") for that price, they could have a real winner here. The big challenge is going to be staying in business long enough to break even. They're going to be burning a lot of cash building out their ground network and equipping planes. Let's just hope they do something to nix the VoIP capability.