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March 2, 2024
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As air travel and connectivity become ubiquitous the tectonic plates in air travel are shifting.  The US was the early pioneer in terms of in-flight Internet connectivity.  Then came 9/11 and the feature, US airlines dropped out and it was adopted by non-US airlines.  The early Boeing technology was expensive and eventually was shut down.  But Boeing had proven one thing – there are people who will pay for Internet access while flying.

Here we are a decade later and the world has moved to “always online”.  We travel with smartphones that process way more data than voice.  The devices are growing ever smarter and allow communications via voice, images, video, email, texting and social media. Interestingly data use is bigger than voice.  Ask any smartphone user.

The idea of in-flight communications is now mainstream.  Southwest Airlines is launching its service using technology supplied by Row44.  Row44 uses satellite-based data feeds.  Here is an image that shows how the aircraft antenna is installed.

The antenna comes from TECOM.  It works on Ku band now and Row44 is planning to work with Ka band when that becomes available.  This solution works much the same way as Boeing’s service.  It works wherever it has satellite access.   Southwest has bet on a solution that is quite different from industry peers that selected AirCell’s GoGo terrestrial approach.

The actual installation on the 737 looks like this.  As you can see the antenna “footprint” is small and should not generate too much drag.   So if you look out at a Southwest plane at the gate and you see this bump, the plane has WiFi access.

We understand there are some 15 Southwest planes with WiFi at this time and the idea is to add somewhere around that number each month.  It will take a while (~3 years) for the service to roll out across the airline’s fleet.  Having tested the service though, we can testify to its speed and ease of use – even with a smartphone.

With the US airline embracing in-flight WiFi the wheel has turned again to where American airlines are leading the charge.  Over water requirements mean that a connectivity solution will almost certainly exploit satellites.  In this regard, Row44 has the advantage.  Which may the primary reason Norwegian, an EU-based LCC, also selected Row44’s solution. The Panasonic solution also uses satellites.

The day is fast approaching when it will be the exception to find a US-airliner without connectivity. We estimate the nation’s airliners should all be equipped within the next five years – even regional jets.

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