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The Future of In-Flight Internet

The Future of In-Flight Internet

Roger Yu, USA TODAY

U.S. airlines may be cutting back flights, but their race to provide in-flight Internet continues unabated.

Our conversation this week is with John Guidon, CEO and founder of Row 44, one of the companies hoping to capture a share of the nascent market.

The Westlake Village, Calif.-based company develops technology for Internet and data connection to commercial aircraft using the global satellite network of its partner Hughes. Its service is not yet available commercially, but its customer test flights are scheduled for early next year.

Row 44 received a significant boost when it signed Southwest Airlines, which has a reputation of being selective in capital investment, as one of its customers. Alaska Airlines also chose Row 44 for its satellite capability — Alaska operates numerous flights above water, where the cell tower system used by AirCell, Row 44’s chief competitor, won’t function.

Guidon and co-founder Gregg Fialcowitz started Row 44 in 2004 — named after the cramped and uncomfortable row of seats in DC-10s — to compete with the now defunct Connexion by Boeing. After signing several high-profile foreign airlines, Connexion shut down at the end of 2006 due to lack of demand.

•Q: What changes can we expect in your industry in the coming years?

There will be growing expectation that (in-flight connectivity) will be ubiquitous. We’re starting to see good demand from major airlines. Airlines right now have to spend money to provide in-flight entertainment. They spend a lot of money on movies and so on, and there’s no revenue to offset the cost. We believe revenue from connectivity can turn that around, and make in-flight entertainment experience a profit center.

The overhead and effort required to establish to large international networks probably means that there isn’t (going to be) multiple networks. You might see a lot of companies say they’re going to try (in-flight WiFi) and you’re going to see that stabilize to a very low number — one or two.

Q: Tell us about some changes in the works to improve or expand your current products/services?

We’ll be deploying in North America commercially in 2009. That means very heavy rollout.

We’re already working with Southwest and Alaska. We already have FAA certification to install the equipment. The test to customers will be in January. That’s when you see it getting on planes.

In the middle of the year, we will…have service across the Atlantic and all over Europe. We have global aspirations. We’re making sure we have traction in each market and can see profitability before we move forward.

We’ll also be offering cellphone connectivity in 2009 where it is allowed and where airlines ask us for it. I know this has become a political hot potato in the U.S. We’re clear on this. Customers, for us, are airlines. We’ll do what airlines want us to do. We have the technology to offer cellphone connectivity.

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