American’s Test of Video Streaming is Just the First Step

American announced this week that it would begin testing streaming video with wifi-provider GoGo on a couple of airplanes, and it will expand wifi to the whole domestic fleet. This is an exciting development, but it’s really just the beginning.

It was just a couple weeks ago that I wrote a column for CNN saying that the future of inflight entertainment might very well be a power outlet and a wifi connection. That’s almost exactly what American is angling for here. (At least, I hope the power outlet is part of the equation eventually.)

GoGo Streaming Video Inflight

The way this works is simple. I spoke with Eric Lemond, GoGo’s VP of Product and Platform Management to get the full details. GoGo has a big server on the airplane with a ton of storage. (I’m told they could store 1,000 movies with what they have now.) Travelers will pop open their laptops and connect to the wireless network just as they would to go online. Then, each traveler can open up the browser to decide whether to purchase internet or whether to purchase the content stored on the airplane. American hasn’t announced pricing yet, so we don’t know what that will look like, but I imagine it will be less expensive than going online.

The initial plan is to have a library of movies and television available for people to stream. The streaming is done in your browser via Flash. You need to download a security plugin (that’s stored on the airplane) to prevent theft but that’s quick and then you’re ready to go. As of now, only laptops are supported. Mobile phone support is on the road map, but I wasn’t given a timeline. With the increasing use of mobiles, that needs to speed up quickly.

One of the biggest problems I see is that in order to watch the movie, you have to be connected to the internet for the payment to process. So if you’re on a flight from, say, Honolulu to LA, then you’re out of luck because there’s no internet access, even at the beginning. If, however, you’re going from, oh, Dallas to San Jose, Costa Rica, then you should have enough internet time at the beginning of the flight to buy the movie and watch it. Eric says that there is a roadmap that would allow people to eventually watch movies without that initial internet connection, but that’s down the line. You can, however, continue to watch a movie on the ground for a certain period of time after your flight, if you’re unable to finish it on the airplane. That’s a nice little bonus.

The other concern, of course, is around the quality of the streaming. If I get a “buffering” message every couple minutes, then this will fail. Eric says that GoGo has that under control. Since the streaming is all happening on the airplane and doesn’t require the air-to-ground connection, it’s a lot easier to make it work. Now, if 150 people all decided to watch the same movie within 5 minutes of each other, then performance might be degraded, but Eric says they can use engineering as necessary to increase capacity as demand grows.

Of course, for this to be worthwhile, American needs to commit to wifi instead of half-committing as it’s done so far. That is changing with this announcement. Today, American has wifi on its fleet of 767-200s that fly between the west coast and east coast. Two of those airplanes will be the ones doing the streaming test. American also has wifi on 150 of its MD-80s and will install it on 50 more. (That will leave less than 50 without wifi, but those will be retired sooner rather than later.)

Today, only 43 of the airline’s 737-800s have wifi, and that’s only about a third of the fleet. I asked American when the 737 fleet would be done, and I was given PR-speak: “American continues to install Wi-Fi service on 737-800 aircraft and the entire fleet is expected to be outfitted overtime.” Um, ok. These installs take very little time at all, so I have no clue why this is taking so long and why an estimate on when the fleet will be done is unavailable.

But the biggest issue for American has been the lack of wifi on the 757 fleet. Now, the 93 757s used for domestic flights (the rest do international like east coast to Europe) will get wifi as well. That should be done by the end of 2012.

The end result is that the entire mainline domestic fleet will have wifi. Unlike Delta, American has no plans to install wifi on its large regional jets (or its small regional jets, for that matter). And international, of course, will continue to not have wifi because GoGo is ground-based.

But as I said, this is just the start. GoGo says that there is the ability to have gaming, audio, and other rich media on the server, so it’s just a matter of figuring out what the airlines want to offer. This definitely seems like the smart way forward to me. Of course, this again makes powerports even more important. When are we gonna hear an announcement about full 110V power throughout the airplane, American? Those cigarette lighter ports in some rows just don’t cut it.

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