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JetBlue Buys Verizon’s Airfone Service for In-Flight Internet Access

Remember the Airfone?

On many planes, there was a phone in the center console or on the seatback in front of you that took credit cards and allowed phone calls to be made on planes. I used to see them on many airlines, even Southwest, but haven’t noticed any on recent flights.

But Verizon, the owner of Airfone, has continued to hold on to frequencies in the 800 MHz range for air-to-ground telephone service, and these frequencies may be seeing a lot more use soon--JetBlue Airways Corp. has agreed to buy Verizon Communications Inc.’s Airfone business.

It will use it to offer e-mail and messaging services aboard planes. Airfone said the purchase would give JetBlue 100 ground-to-air communications towers and over 2,400 customers.

Readers who’ve flown JetBlue know they were the first airline to provide live satellite programming via seat-back television sets. To use the new service, passengers would use a Wi-Fi link to connect to the Internet. Blackberry devices with Wi-Fi capability would also be able to use the network. JetBlue has contracts with other airlines to provide television, e-mail and messaging services.

It isn’t clear how much bandwidth would be available on a plane. News stories about JetBlue’s purchase of Airfone have focused on low-bandwidth applications such as e-mail and messaging. Web browsing would require much more bandwidth. The old Airfone voice network used analog single sideband modulation. New technology such EVDO has been mentioned for the new services in previous articles, but limited spectrum and the inability to divide the country into very small cells would make passenger “broadband” access impossible.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.