Airlines Compete in Wireless LAN Space

Three of the top U.S. airlines have taken their competition to the airwaves with a race to provide high-speed (11M bit/sec.) wireless LAN access to their customers in lounges and at gates within airport terminals.

Analysts said the airport airwaves war indicates the maturity and increasing popularity of wireless LAN cards, prompting strategic moves by the carriers to ensure that they don't forfeit a competitive customer service edge.

Dueling Plans

United Airlines Inc. announced plans this week to roll out high-speed wireless LAN access at all domestic and selected international airports. American Airlines Inc., which first offered wireless LAN service in September 1998 in San Jose, gradually extended the service to 11 other airports. Last week, the company said it had extended wireless LAN access to 11 additional airports.

Delta Air Lines Inc. in Atlanta, meanwhile, has completed a deal announced in April with the Aerzone subsidiary of SoftNet Systems Inc. in San Francisco to provide wireless LAN access in its Crown Room lounges, with service slated to start next year.

United, in Chicago, signed a letter of intent with Aerzone to provide high-speed wireless LAN Internet access in all of its domestic terminals and at a yet-to-be-determined number of international locations.

United said it plans to offer the service first at its hubs in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dulles International Airport in the Washington area. The timing is unclear, however. A United spokesperson said the service will be available in selected airports "sometime next year."

American Airlines this week rolled out the service to gates and Admiral Club airport lounges, with MobileStar Network Corp. in Richardson, Texas, providing the service. Airports include New York's JFK, Newark, San Francisco, Chicago O'Hare and Baltimore/Washington.

All three carriers and their wireless LAN partners provide high-speed Internet access using the industry standard 802.11B protocol that's embraced by a growing list of notebook and laptop computer manufacturers, including Dell Computer Corp., Compaq Computer Corp. and IBM Corp. Those vendors offer computers equipped with wireless LAN access cards priced less than $200, with Dell and IBM also offering built-in antennae and 802.11B modems.

Elliott Hamilton, an analyst at Strategis Group Inc. in Washington, said the airlines' push to provide wireless LAN access indicates that "it's definitely proven technology, and I believe we're going to see the market increase dramatically as prices [for access cards] come down."

C. Brian Grimm, a spokesman for the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, an industry group, said the airlines' efforts to offer wireless LAN service in airports shows that "enough people have used the technology that they want it when they travel, and they don't want to be hamstrung" by slower connections. Currently, travelers typically must be content with dial-up connections that provide only 56K bit/sec. access to the Internet.

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