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Air Canada expects to start having internet service on its Toronto-San Francisco and Toronto-Los Angeles routes in June. Canadian routes will take much longer. ((Frank Gunn/Canadian Press))

Air Canada says it's on target to begin offering on-board internet on two U.S.-bound routes leaving Toronto within the next three months.

However, a number of regulatory, business and practical hurdles remain before Air Canada or any other airline can offer a similar service in Canadian airspace.

How in-flight internet works

Aircell's internet network for in-flight internet is very similar to a cellular phone network. A network of towers is installed at the ground, and these are designed to fire a beam of energy into the sky, carrying internet data. In order to receive the signal, planes are equipped with antennas in the bottom of their fuselage. They relay the signal to radio equipment in the plane's cargo bay, which is hooked up to a Wi-Fi network in the cabin. Signals from the Wi-Fi network are then sent back to the transceiver, which relays them to the nearest ground tower as the plane passes overhead. According to Aircell, the service is similar in speed and quality to Wi-Fi service at internet hotspots at ground level.

Peter Fitzpatrick, spokesman for Montreal-based Air Canada confirmed last week that the company will begin its initial deployment late this spring of the Gogo internet service offered by U.S.-based Aircell.

The systems, which provide wireless access similar to that found in internet hotspots such as some coffee shops, are expected to be in regular use by the summer and fully operational by the end of the year on the airline's Toronto-San Francisco and Toronto-Los Angeles routes, Fitzpatrick said.

Aircell's service is already installed on about 100 planes in the U.S. run by American Airlines, Virgin America and Delta Airlines.

"It works well, and the system is light, which is always a consideration on aircraft because of fuel," Fitzpatrick said.

Robin Salem, Aircell's senior vice president for strategy and business development, said his company already working on expanding the service northward.

"We will have the service in Canada … it's going to happen," he said.

However, before that can go ahead:

  • Industry Canada will have to decide how it wants to license the service.
  • A Canadian company will have to successfully bid for the licence.
  • Infrastructure will have to be set up to support the service.

Industry Canada has already set aside a set of frequencies for "air-ground" services such as Aircell's on-board internet, which uses a network of towers on the ground that send and receive signals containing internet data to and from planes flying overhead.  

The planes must be equipped with the appropriate antennas, a transceiver and a router. The same frequencies have been set aside for the service across North America.

Bell expresses interest

The federal department held a public consultation starting in November about how it should auction off the frequencies starting in November, and posted in late March the comments it received from:

  • Bell Mobility, which previously held the licence for that spectrum.
  • Aircell.
  • An individual named Joe Church.

At that time, Industry Canada had not yet issued any licences for the service.

Only Canadian companies would be eligible to hold the licence.

That means Aircell would have to partner with the licence holder in order to offer its service in Canada, Salem acknowledged. However, he said the company has already been talking with five or six Canadian parties who are interested, and would take as a partner whatever company wins the licence.

The company would also need permits to set up the towers to send and receive the signals. More than 90 such sites have been set up across the U.S., but Aircell estimates only 15 to 20 would be needed to cover the routes that Air Canada flies. They could be set up in less than six months, weather permitting, Salem said.

Regulations in Canada

  • Transport Canada allows the use of wireless devices on planes except during takeoff and landing if the plane is equipped to support the service.
  • Industry Canada has set aside two sets of radio frequencies, 849 to 851 mh z and 894 to 896 mh z, for use in air-ground communications such as voice telephony, broadband Internet and data transmission. One set is for sending, and the other is for receiving. Those same frequencies are also set aside for the same purpose in the U.S. and Mexico.
  • Industry Canada has proposed auctioning off licences for the frequencies in two blocks, each for a 10-year period, with a minimum price of $1.7 million for the larger (3 mhz wide) and $400,000 for the smaller (1 mhz wide).
  • A Canadian company must hold a licence in order to use the frequencies in Canada.
  • Canadian companies do not require a Canadian licence to operate in-flight internet services outside Canada.

Meanwhile, WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer said his airline has no internet service similar to Air Canada's planned at the moment.

"We're watching to see how the other airlines are finding the guest experience because that is the single most important thing to us," he said adding that some passengers might find it disruptive to have neighbouring passengers using the service.

Fran Phillips, senior vice president of airline solutions at Aircell, said so far "passenger acceptance has been phenomenal" on U.S. airlines, although she noted that the company does not allow the use of voice services on-board, as passengers don't seem to want it.

Aircell first announced in September that Air Canada would begin offering the Gogo service in spring 2009 on some Airbus A319 aircraft that fly into the U.S.

The company currently charges $9.95 US for laptop internet use on flights less than three hours, $12.95 US for laptop internet on flights longer than three hours and $7.95 US for internet use on a mobile device.

Another U.S. company has also just launched on-board internet. Westlake Village, Calif.-based Row 44 began a trial run of its service on Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines flights earlier this year.