In-Flight Wi- Fi Taking Off

Wi-Fi service is offered on more than one-third of the nation's passenger planes, so it's no longer rare to see travelers connecting to the Internet in midflight.

Despite such growth, some users still consider in-flight Wi-Fi to be expensive, especially on longer flights; it can cost $13 for more than three hours of service. Some travelers also say they get confused when they try to figure out which planes actually have Wi-Fi service, according to complaints on various blogs. And on top of that, travelers need to know what kind of DC power adapter to bring on a plane, since Wi-Fi quickly saps laptop batteries.

All but a few planes in the U.S. that offer Wi-Fi use a service called Gogo from Itasca, Ill.-based Aircell. Gogo service is used by eight carriers and is available on 968 aircraft, or more than one-third of the estimated 2,800 aircraft that are flown by U.S. airlines, according to Aircell's Web site.

Southwest Airlines now has six planes that use a Wi-Fi service from Row 44 Inc.; that's up from just one plane in May. However, the airline plans to add Wi-Fi to its entire fleet by early 2012, a spokesman said.

The services provided by both Aircell and Row 44 offer a similar in-flight experience, but Row 44 gets its signals from satellites while Aircell relies on ground radio tower connections.

Two years ago, Row 44 seemed to be running neck-and-neck with Aircell in the race to provide U.S. fleets with Wi-Fi capability. But it fell behind in its effort to equip Southwest planes while waiting for federal government approval to work with an additional antenna vendor, according to Robbie Hyman, a spokesman for Westlake Village, Calif.-based Row 44.

"We've cleared that hurdle, though, and are resuming the schedule to outfit Southwest planes," Hyman said.

Southwest is adding Wi-Fi to about 15 aircraft per month, with its full fleet of 540 planes expected to get the wireless service by early 2012, Hyman said. Information about Southwests's Wi-Fi plans is also posted on a Southwest blog from earlier this year.

Meanwhile, it's uncertain whether many more U.S.-based carriers will choose to offer Row 44 service. Hyman conceded that Aircell "has gotten a jump on much of the U.S. market," but he claimed that because Aircell uses ground-based towers, it is only capable of providing service in the U.S., whereas Row 44's system "goes all over the world."

Row 44's second customer was Norwegian Air Shuttle and its third was South Africa's Mango Airlines. "We have the entire world of commercial airlines as our market [while] Aircell is limited to the continental U.S.," Hyman said.

Still, Row 44 lost Alaska Airlines to Aircell in the past year. An Alaska Airlines spokeswoman explained that using Aircell enabled the carrier to deploy Wi-Fi more quickly than it could have with Row 44. She also noted that Aircell had a "proven track record" with other carriers.

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