In-flight Internet comes to South Africa


South Africans will soon be able to access the Internet on flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town as a new service from Fli G-Connect becomes active in the next few months.

Wireless Internet will be available as soon as April from company WirelessG, which has the sole rights to provide the service in Africa starting from May 1.

WirelessG CEO Carel van der Merwe said all aspects of the project will be in place in the next four months or so, with the equipment being installed in the first Mango aircraft in April. WirelessG’s partners in South Africa are Vodacom Business and Mango airlines. Although Mango will be the first airline to offer the service, WirelessG is in discussions with other airlines.

WirelessG is currently awaiting endorsement for the service from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The CAA has said it should take no longer than a month for approval to come through. Approval for enabling Wi-Fi access in flight has been granted by the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). WirelessG’s international technology partner, Row44, has submitted documentation to, and would hold a meeting with, the CAA in February, at which time certification will be transferred to the CAA. Delays in obtaining approval have come from negotiations between the manufacturers and Row44, and the FAA.

Van der Merwe explained that the safety of the technology has already been approved by the FAA, and internationally the CAA accepts certification from the US. The technology has been installed on some 800 planes in America already. Extensive testing was done in the United States to ensure the equipment does not interfere with aircraft avionics.

Providing the technology is Row44, a Calilfornia-based company that specialises in in-flight broadband on commercial aircraft as well as live television and cell phone services for passengers. It began providing in-flight Internet to passengers in 2009. Unlike providers that use ground-based antennas, Row44 leases capacity from the HughesNet satellite Internet access system, enabling access over water, the Daily Wireless reports.

Using Fli G-Connect will be the same as picking up a Wi-Fi signal from anywhere else, with speeds consistent with the normal WirelessG Wi-Fi hotspot experience. Either a voucher is purchased or a customer puts in existing G-Connect account details. The service will be cheaper for G-Connect customers, who would also be able to take unused bandwidth with them.

WirelessG says that on-board connectivity is a common request from airline passengers, and that 95% of frequent fliers in the United States agree with the statement that in-flight Wi-Fi is “the best thing airlines have done” in the last three years. 50% of business travellers take Wi-Fi enabled flights to be “reachable” during business hours, WirelessG says.

South Africa has approximately six million Internet users, and this will nearly double to ten million by 2015, according to World Wide Worx, meaning that the demand for in-flight connectivity will continue to expand.

According to Wakefield Research and the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi has clearly become a major decision-factor in frequent fliers’ choosing of airlines. 76% of frequent fliers would change their airline to have in-flight Wi-Fi. 55% of them would change their flight by a full day to have it. And another 71% of frequent fliers would prefer Wi-Fi access rather than meal service.

On Virgin America flights 10-15% of passengers pay for in-flight Internet and on transcontinental flights up to a quarter of passengers make use of the service, WirelessG says. Due to shorter flights within South Africa, early models show a 15% take-up rate will be critical.

Row44 is not the first company to have developed in-flight Internet and there are several other providers, such as Aircell (Gogo Inflight Internet) and AeroMobile. Boeing was one of the early pioneers and developed its Connexion in-flight Internet service in 2001, beginning commercial service in 2004.

However, the service was discontinued in December 2006 after Boeing could not get enough passengers using its service. This was mainly due to its high cost ($10 an hour or $30 unlimited), post 9/11 decline in the airline industry and $500 000 per plane investment. The equipment was also bulky and heavy, weighing around 400 kg. Row44’s technology, on the other hand, weighs around a tenth as much and, while still expensive, is cheaper than Connexion, WirelessG says.