Wi-Fi on the Fly: Who Really Cares?

Delta is latest to promise wireless in flight, but do users really want it?

By Judy Mottl | Posted Aug 8, 2008
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Right now a few places still exist where mobile warriors can't power up a laptop to flick off a few e-mails or send a quick message about a valuable client request. Think emergency rooms, a subway platform or that two-hour flight for an early morning meeting.

But the latter could come off the list by next summer if Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) fulfills its promise announced on Tuesday to provide Wi-Fi in first and economy classes on 330 airliners.

The issue, though, is whether mobile users want wireless access while flying. After all, as one pundit noted, it's not like other airlines haven't tried offering online access as a competitive feature in what's an increasingly competitive market.

"Other airlines have tried this internationally, but no one bought it," Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner, told InternetNews.com, noting Lufthansa Airlines program a few years back that was priced over $20.

"Not only was it expensive, but the main thing was people don't want to be bothered," Redman said. They like that downtime."

Delta is the first domestic carrier to publicize an actual deployment date. Although several other airlines are currently testing wireless network access, none have publicly stated a deployment time.

The airline is planning to deploy its mobile broadband network through a partnership with Aircell, a 17-year-old aviation airborne communications provider. Users will log in to Aircell's portal, called Gogo, using Wi-Fi-enabled devices. The service will cost $9.95 for flights of three hours or less and $12.95 for longer travel stints.

According to Delta's CEO Richard Anderson, the Wi-Fi program is in direct response to customer demand.

“Our customers asked for in-flight connectivity, and we're responding by rolling out the most extensive Wi-Fi network in the sky," Anderson stated in a release. Calls to Delta for further comment were not returned by press time.

Analyst Jack Gold, of J.Gold Associates, said cost and actual connectivity performance will determine whether mobile warriors gravitate toward Delta's service.

"Since there is a single link to the ground, and everyone on board needs to share that link, if there are a lot of users on board loading the system it may not have great performance," Gold said, using the analogy of hooking lots of PCs to a WiFi network through one cable modem.

In addition, while $10 bucks may seem low, frequent business travelers could end up racking up some substantial bills.

"The per-flight price may be a little high for the casual business user as well, since if you really sign up for every flight you are on it will costs hundreds of dollars per year," Gold noted.

One approach that would work better, he said, would be a bulk pricing or volume plan that could be more attractive to frequent fliers.

"Ease of connectivity to the network will also be key, as I don't think too many flight attendants will be acting as a Geek Squad agent," Gold said.

As both analysts noted, device battery power is also an issue. Most airlines currently don't provider fliers with power outlet access. "Being on a long flight and using a Wi-Fi card will suck power from your laptop," Gold said. "This is a bigger, harder upgrade to airplanes than installing the Wi-Fi and ground radio, and most don't have this right now."

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com

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