Now that wireless service providers have patchworked the United States in coverage areas from Seattle to Sarasota, it seemed there was just one place left where users of mobile devices—who have begun to expect four-bar cellular service and wireless e-mail access not simply as conveniences but entitlements—were unfailing disconnected. With its Airfone Service for Verizon Wireless and new JetConnect—an in-flight e-mail, instant messaging and text-messaging service—Verizon Airfone is proving that the sky is no longer the limit.
Bill Pallone, president of Verizon Airfone, recently spoke with Mobile Enterprise magazine about the past, present and future of in-flight telephony.
Mobile Enterprise: Can you give us a brief history of Verizon's role in in-flight telephony?
Bill Pallone: Airfone began offering commercial service in 1984 with the introduction of the first cordless air-to-ground telephone system, called the Airfone System. Airfone installed the first seatback telephone in 1987, and the company deployed a nationwide, end-to-end digital system starting in 1993. In 2002, Airfone installed the first messaging and content service on commercial airlines in the United States—this is JetConnect, available on Continental, United and US Airways. In 2004, Airfone introduced wireless roaming to Verizon Wireless customers traveling at 30,000 feet.
ME: Who was/is your competition in the "Air phone" space?
BP: JetConnect is the first and only service to offer in-flight messaging, news and entertainment on U.S. flights and is currently installed in over 800 planes. I suppose we do compete with the other things a passenger can do while in flight—read, sleep, watch a movie. Boeing's service is in Europe, a market we do not serve.
ME: Is it only a matter of time before all airplanes offer JetConnect or an equivalent service—or will a more advanced technology leapfrog it before that can be the case?
BP: Wi-Fi–equipped planes with full Internet access seem inevitable.
ME: What role do you envision Verizon playing in that scenario, and how far off do you think it is?
BP: Verizon Airfone is currently in the trial stage for Wi-Fi and expects to have it installed in 100 aircraft by year’s end (pending FAA approvals). By providing Wi-Fi at 35,000 feet, we’re keeping up with the connectivity standards passengers and airlines have become accustomed to on the ground. Passengers want to use their own wireless devices—laptops, PDAs—in-flight. Airfone Service for Verizon Wireless, which became available on all Airfone-equipped commercial aircraft on March 1, 2004, was our first step toward allowing passengers to use their own wireless devices in-flight. Subscribers can forward their Verizon Wireless calls directly to the Airfone handset, or place calls from the Airfone handset—all at discounted rates—and the charges are billed to their Verizon Wireless account.
ME: What can we look forward to seeing from Verizon Airfone in the future?
BP: Verizon Airfone is dedicated to bringing the latest technology to its customers and is planning to roll out broadband technology in late 2005, pending a favorable decision from the FCC. This will provide passengers with unrestricted access to the Internet at speeds comparable to DSL.