Southwest in-flight Wi-Fi coming next quarter

Southwest Airlines has ordered equipment for an in-flight Wi-Fi service and will start deploying it on planes in the second quarter of this year.

After a number of delays, the discount U.S. airline has signed a deal with Row 44 to become the latest carrier to offer wireless Internet access in the cabins of its airliners, according to a Friday posting on the Southwest blog. Once Southwest begins installing the gear, it plans to equip about 15 planes every month and have Wi-Fi available throughout its fleet of 540 craft in early 2012.

Southwest has made its name as a no-frills airline and will be adding Wi-Fi after several other U.S. airlines have at least begun their deployments. For example, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines all provide the service on some planes, and the smaller AirTran Airways and Virgin America offer it throughout their fleets.

But Southwest, like Alaska Airlines, is taking a different route than most carriers, using the satellite-based network of Row 44 rather than Aircell’s GoGo service, which uses 3G to link planes to the Internet. Row 44 received a U.S. Federal Communications Commission license just last month to commercially deploy its latest system, the one Southwest will be using. Southwest and Alaska at one time had planned to launch trials with Row 44 in 2008 but didn’t formally announce their tests until February 2009. Now, Southwest says it has finished testing and signed a contract to buy equipment from the company.

Airlines haven’t provided many hard numbers on the use of in-flight Wi-Fi, which typically costs about $6 for a short flight. During the holiday season in the U.S., Google sponsored a promotion that made Wi-Fi free on Virgin America and in 47 airports around the country. That program ended Jan. 15, Google said in a blog entry Monday.

Southwest said it would disclose the pricing of its service in April. Under the airline’s deal with Row 44, the airline agrees to deliver a certain amount of revenue to Row 44 but can set its own prices for customers, said Gregg Fialcowitz, president and co-founder of Row 44.

The Row 44 service is designed to deliver an average of about 10M bps (bits per second) for all the users on the plane to share, Fialcowitz said.

Southwest won’t allow voice calls over the Internet and will filter inappropriate content by preventing passengers from visiting certain sites, said Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger.

Row 44, based in Westlake Village, California, currently covers North America, from Alaska through Canada and the continental U.S., Fialcowitz said. By the middle of this year it will provide coverage across Europe, with Norwegian Air Shuttle offering its service, as well as supporting services on trans-Atlantic flights and in Africa, he said. By the end of 2012, Row 44 expects to offer service around the world.

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