Tech Break: Row 44 & Southwest WiFi

Over President’s Day weekend, I did something that I have not done in quite a while – take a flight on Southwest. The third major airline at Denver International Airport offered a lower fare than my perennial favorite, Frontier Airlines, between home and here, so I got to taste firsthand the crackers, peanuts, and inflight WiFi of the US’s largest low-cost airline.
At this point, getting WiFi on a Southwest flight is a very unsure proposition; the technology is only installed on seventy of their 547 plane fleet, and I did not know WiFi was available until I saw the “Southwest WiFi Hotspot” decal as I boarded the aircraft. However, the airline is aggressively rolling out the service to its fleet, and rollout appears not to be specific to just newer planes; I am positive that my flight was not on a shiny new Boeing 737-700, yet WiFi was definitely online.

The first big difference between Southwest WiFi, provided by Row 44, and other airlines’ WiFi services, provided by Aircell, is that the Southwest system is satellite, rather than cellular, based. Row 44 rents capacity from Hughes Network Systems, the same folks who offer HughesNet branded satellite Internet service out in the sticks (where I call home), while Aircell uses cell sites with antennas pointed skyward; EvDO is that provider’s weapon of choice now, though I hear that LTE will be, eventually. This arrangement gives Row 44 a speed advantage over Aircell; hit over 5 Mbps on downloads versus Aircell’s 1 Mbps, though upload speeds were similarly low across both carriers. In real-life download situations, throughput varied more on my Southwest flight than on the Aircell-equipped US Air one I flew a week and a half earlier. However, I can definitively say that, for pulling down iTunes songs, courtesy Southwest’s InAirtainment initiative, the sat-based system was faster.

There is one big issue with satellite-based Internet however, in air or on the ground and that is latency. I have seen worse connections than the one available on my flight. However, latency was five to eight times higher than on Aircell, making web browsing a chore. Additionally, the system seemed to be suffering from a bit of packet loss; sometimes it would take a couple of tries to load a web page, and my IM client at times sent multiple copies of the same message because it could not tell whether the first time was successful. In short, Row 44 was faster, but Aircell was more reliable. YouTube videos took what seemed like ages to buffer on Southwest, as did songs on Grooveshark. Streaming audio on Aircell worked better, though I was too busy to test out YouTube on either of my Aircell-equipped flights.

One thing where Southwest wins, ironically, is what kind of access you get when you do not pay for the service, Aircell’s limited-time Facebook promotion aside. On Southwest, a basic in-flight location map is on the near side of the WiFi pay wall, as is Sudoku and another in-flight game whose name I cannot recall. Also, Southwest’s $5-per-flight access is priced the same as Aircell’s service on short flights, such as Charlotte to Orlando on US Air. Put another way, $12.95 for an Aircell-equipped flight from Denver to Charlotte is expensive, and $5 for a San Antonio to Denver flight is not.

Two final nitpicks. Southwest places a banner at the top of many websites (though not GMail, YouTube, or Twitter) while using their WiFi, something that Aircell does not do, and Southwest’s WiFi is limited to a single device, while Aircell’s can be swapped between devices by logging out on one and logging in on the other.

All told, Row 44 has strengths and weaknesses over Aircell’s system, but you will not be able to choose one or the other unless you change airlines, and even then you might not be able to get a given service on a given route; San Antonio to Denver is flown by United, Frontier, and Southwest, and of those three airlines, only Southwest even has the possibility of inflight WiFi as of today. All that said, Southwest’s Row 44-based system gets points for speed and price but loses on latency and general reliability, at least from my experience. So if you are willing to pay for Aircell and the flight that it is on, go with that, but for $5 Southwest’s Row 44 deal is not a horrible one.

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