Air Canada clears passenger Wi-Fi for takeoff

Air Canada will soon be answering the prayers of its business travelers as it prepares to rollout in-flight Wi-Fi services on select U.S.-bound flights. But with the lack of an air-to-ground network on Canadian soil, passengers looking to take advantage of the new service on domestic flights will have to wait a little while longer.

Teaming up with Aircell LLC, Air Canada will rollout the “Gogo” Wi-Fi system on a handful of its Airbus A319 planes. The airline expects the initial deployment to be completed by spring 2009, primarily on west coast-bound flights to San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Internet access will allow passengers to surf the Web, check e-mail, use instant messaging applications, send SMS messages and access their corporate VPN.

“Customers who have identified the need for in-flight Internet connectivity are very much skewed to the business travelers,” Charles McKee, vice-president of marketing at Air Canada, said. “The full suite of functionality that Gogo can provide aligns perfectly with what our customers want.” Earlier this year, Aircell rolled out its U.S. network, comprised of 92 cell towers across the continental 48 states.

The company teamed with American Airlines to launch the service on 15 planes and is now in the process of launching the service on two other airlines. Joe Herzog, vice-president of airline solutions at Aircell, said the network took a total of six months to construct and anticipated a Canadian network could be completed even faster.

But the problem facing currently facing Aircell – and the issue that is limiting Air Canada’s initial rollout to U.S.-bound flights only – comes in the form of a regulatory roadblock. Industry Canada has yet to assign air-to-ground spectrum to a licencee in Canada, meaning Aircell will have to hold off on putting up cell towers on Canadian soil.

“We’re working with the regulatory officials in Canada right now to basically take the steps necessary so that we can have someone – a partner perhaps – in Canada that will obtain the necessary licencings,” he said. “One of the key attributes in Canada is that there is air-to-ground spectrum already set aside specifically for this type of application. There was a lot of foresight from Industry Canada to set aside this spectrum and it makes it much more practical for us.”

And with the rising fuel prices putting a cramp on the airline industry, potential users might have questions about how much Air Canada is hoping to charge for this service. According to McKee, the first phase of pricing has been set at $12.95 per flight for trips lasting longer than three hours. Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney was impressed with Air Canada’s initial price point, but wondered how well the network performance would hold up under heavy use.

“The question becomes how much bandwidth will they have on these planes,” he said. “If too many use it, you’ll get what you have on ViaRail trips from Montreal and Ottawa – something that is unusable.”

But Herzog said that connection quality won’t be an issue for passengers and compared in-flight Wi-Fi speeds to mobile broadband access on the ground. He added that the system connects each plane’s Wi-Fi hot spot to the ground over a 3 MHz signal.

“Passengers have been telling us that what they’re experiencing is better than what they have at home, in the office or at a coffee shop,” he said.

As for the security concerns that might come with accessing potentially mission-critical data over an in-flight Wi-Fi system, Herzog said that Gogo supports most corporate VPNs and will allow passengers to use the service in full compliance with any business security requirements they might have.

IDC Canada security analyst David Senf agreed, saying the network won’t be any more or less secure than a public Wi-Fi hotspot at a local coffee shop. “When sending or receiving personal or corporate sensitive data, remember the basics and use encryption,” he said. “Assume that if you are not encrypting your wireless traffic that it can be read.”

Senf advised that HTTPS communications is used when checking Web-based e-mail accounts such as Gmail, and that a VPN is used whenever communicating with a corporate system.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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