By the Blouin News Technology staff

AT&T seeks foothold in airborne wi-fi

by in Personal Tech.

A passenger uses his phone as he waits in front of the destination boards. DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images

A passenger uses his phone as he waits in front of the destination boards. DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s review of whether or not to allow in-flight phone calls has somewhat fallen under the radar since the Commission’s focus has been on net neutrality for the large part of 2014. But carriers and those in wireless have not forgotten the hype that the Commission stirred up late last year as it reviewed the regulations banning in-flight phone calls and other uses of mobile devices on airplanes. It is clear that the use of mobile devices in-air is changing around the world, even if the policies do not change in the U.S. And if they do, AT&T has revealed it will be ready with a 4G-ready network for in-flight wi-fi it is building for 2015.


Source: IMS Research

Source: IMS Research

AT&T’s plan involves it jumping into an area with just a few players right now — something that could behoove one of the top U.S. carriers. But AT&T’s wi-fi development plan is not contingent on whether or not in-flight phone calls are ever approved in the U.S. It is seeking to join the potentially lucrative business of creating reliable wireless in the sky for any internet use, and to pit itself against Gogo — the provider that currently connects airlines including American Airlines, Delta, US Airways, United, and Virgin America.

AT&T has its work cut out for it; the network it is looking towards does not exist yet, but given AT&T’s scope of coverage in the U.S. already, perhaps it will be able to lure users from Gogo’s network by offering better connection, more bandwidth, and lower prices.

Indeed, in-flight wi-fi prices are what deter many users who cannot justify spending $5 for one hour of internet on a plane. Gogo is a bit safeguarded though by its 10-year contracts with the many airlines to which it supplies wi-fi. Even if AT&T rolls out a shiny new wi-fi network next year, it will have to compete with some of the airlines that have been pledged to Gogo. And even if both providers end up successful, there is no guarantee that in-flight calls will ever become part of the plan. As the FCC stated:

The FCC has proposed rules that, if adopted, would give airline carriers the ability to allow passengers to use their mobile wireless devices, such as cellphones, to communicate with cellular frequency equipment while flying above 10,000 feet. Ultimately, if the FCC adopts new rules, it will be the airlines’ decision, in consultation with their customers whether to permit the use of data, text and/or voice services while airborne.

For now, mobile device usage on airplanes is a growingly competitive landscape. AT&T will certainly bring some healthy market action to the table. If anything, perhaps users will find new, cheaper options for in-flight wi-fi by the end of 2015.