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CES: Flying high with Wi-Fi -- surfing the Web at 4,000 feet

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LAS VEGAS --- I’m flying 4,000 feet above the desert on a cloudless day. There’s a spectacular view of majestic mountains, dramatically stark landscapes and shimmering lakes.

But what am I looking at? A dog riding a skateboard.

That’s because on this flight I have access to YouTube and the rest of the Internet, which normally is off-limits on airplanes. This is a demonstration during the annual Consumer Electronics Show of Row44, a soon-to-debut satellite Wi-Fi system meant for commercial airlines.

Later this month, Row44 will have a public trial run aboard selected Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines flights.

‘Now there’s no way to avoid work,’ pilot Dave Cummings shouts above the engine noise of Row44’s own test aircraft, a Grumman seaplane that was new in the 1950s.

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Indeed, it’s easy to e-mail and surf the Web on this online connection that ...

... ranges from about 2 MB to 4 MB — DSL-type speeds — while banking a slow turn over the MGM Grand and heading out over the desert. The online signal, coming from the Horizons-1 satellite 22,300 miles above the Earth, is picked up by an antenna hidden under a small metal canopy atop the seaplane. Using a combination of GPS, laser and other technologies, the antenna continuously moves to retain line-of-sight access with the satellite.

Videos stream in seamlessly for entertainment, and having the Internet on board is way better for shopping than any copy of SkyMall magazine. During the 20-minute flight, which includes a brief stop on Lake Mead, I order an opera DVD and a video game from Amazon.com.

A brief interruption of the online signal comes during a steep turn over the lake when the airplane antenna dips far enough down to lose access to the satellite. Another signal drop-off comes as we head back toward the Strip, and turbulence tosses the small plane about. ‘This wouldn’t happen so much on a commercial flight,’ Guidon says, as several on board reported feeling a touch of nausea.

Southwest and Alaska passengers who get on the correct flights will soon be able to try the Row44 system for themselves, free. Southwest is installing it on four of its jets; Alaska is putting it on one. Pricing, if the system is adopted by an airline, hasn’t been determined.

But who could put a price on seeing that cute doggie?

-- David Colker


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