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American Airlines have launched their in-flight broadband service, with nary a satellite dish in sight - they're connecting direct to the ground using spectrum owned and operated by Aircell.

The service flew for the first time yesterday, and all 15 of American's Boeing 767-200 planes should support in-flight Wi-Fi within a few weeks. For the moment access is free, but it's going to cost $12.95 per flight under the brand Gogo. Virgin America will be launching the same service, with the same brand name, later this year for $9.95 a flight.

Aircell licensed 3MHz of spectrum from the FCC back in 2006, at a cost of $31.3 million, with promises to have in-flight service working within a year. It's come a little late, but is well placed to compete with satellite systems being offered elsewhere.

Satellite systems have many advantages, such as working while flying over sea and being simple to deploy (once the satellite is up, obviously), but they also have an unavoidable latency and are very expensive to use - launching and maintaining satellites is extremely pricey.

Boeing's own satellite system Connexion was charging $18 for three hours of use, which punters seemed reluctant to pay. The service was scrapped in 2006, after two years of operation, despite Boeing having spent around a billion dollars on it.

Connecting to the ground works well when you're flying domestic: the services being deployed by American connect JFK, San Francisco and LAX, and Aircell reckons they can offer around 2Mb/sec per user, depending on how many of them are signed up.

The lack of latency, and decent speed, would lend themselves to a decent VoIP connection, but American won't be allowing that. Not only will the popular VoIP services be blocked, but crew will be on the lookout for passengers trying to have a sneaky conversation during flight. ®

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