Travellers itching to update their Facebook status while soaring over the prairies in a Canadian airliner will have to wait until the middle of 2011, when in-flight WiFi access will finally begin arriving in the country’s commercial air fleet.
Providers had targeted a late-2010 launch for the technology – with recent tests carried out by Air Canada and SkySurf Canada Communications Inc., which holds the license to provide air-to-ground in-flight communication service in Canada – but that has been pushed back to mid-2011.
Still, plans “are moving forward,” said Raed Almasri, president of SkySurf.
“People are connected everywhere – in the house, in the car, to our iPhones – and there has only been one area of Canada out of connection and that is flight. The need is there for the business traveller. It is a no-brainer,” he said.
Mr. Almasri said SkySurf will collaborate with U.S. in-flight WiFi provider Aircell LLC, whose Gogo Internet technology is already being used in more than 1,000 commercial aircraft in eight U.S. airlines, two out of three aircraft flying in the U.S. fleet.
SkySurf won the Canadian air-to-ground wireless radio spectrum licence auction from Industry Canada in May, 2009, and reportedly paid more than $5.1-million for the licences. The company plans to use existing mobile cellphone towers to relay WiFi connections.
“We’re starting off with a regional network, over high-density traffic areas, all the way from Windsor to, say, Quebec City,” Mr. Almasri said. “Then to the next high-traffic area, which is Vancouver-Calgary-Edmonton, and then slowly moving out from there.”
The airplane needs to be flying over ground that has cellular infrastructure. Instead of beaming signals to connections on the ground, the towers will beam it up to moving aircraft, Mr. Almasri said.
In Canada, demographics and geography have been a challenge to introducing the technology, Mr. Almasri said. The majority of the population lives along the Canada-U.S. border, leaving much of the sparsely populated part of the country out of range.
“It makes it more difficult to get connectivity, and we have to contend with weather conditions, but we have experts who have built networks in Canada and internationally, so we are confident we’ll be just fine,” he said.
A reciprocal roaming arrangement will allow Aircell to provide its Gogo Inflight Internet services to passengers on U.S. commercial aircraft flying over Canada.
Two Air Canada aircraft flying between Montreal, Toronto and Los Angeles took part in a pilot project earlier this year to test the technology. Passengers were charged $9.95 per flight to access the service on a laptop computer and $7.95 to use a smart phone such as a BlackBerry.
Air Canada said it awaits Skysurf’s formal launch of the technology.
“For our part we are still evaluating the results of our onboard WiFi testing, so at this point we have no timelines,” said Air Canada spokeswoman Angela Mah in an e-mail.
When contacted, WestJet Airlines said it had no plans to offer the service.
While it may sound like pie in the sky to Canadian air travellers, in-flight WiFi is increasingly becoming the norm on international flights.
In November, Delta Airlines, the world’s largest airline by passenger volume, rolled out the service on all of its main routes and has recently partnered with Google to offer it for free.
One technology generation before that, Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa AG offered in-flight broadband as early as 2003. The airline was forced to pull the service in 2006 after Boeing dropped support for it. But today, Lufthansa, along with most U.S. commercial carriers, offers free WiFi in partnership with Internet companies.
Kelly Davis-Felner, the marketing director for the WiFi Alliance, an American-based non-profit set up by the industry to promote the technology, said the push for airlines to adopt WiFi intensified two years ago.
“From a coverage standpoint … last year it seemed like it was the announcement of plans and this year was the first year you started seeing WiFi on flights,” she says.
In the U.S., WiFi in-flight service is now standard, and mainly provided by two companies. Along with Gogo, U.S company Row 44 uses a satellite-based system that can provide service over oceans.
Who is actually purchasing the service while travelling is unclear, however, as broad usage data is not yet available. But Ms. Davis-Felner said a study carried out by the WiFi Alliance a year ago showed passengers who do use it preferred connecting with the Internet while flying than having an onboard meal.
“Even as WiFi advocates we were astounded by how strongly positive the polling came out in favour of it,” she said.