Row 44 Inc., a Westlake Village startup that has long strived to provide high-speed wireless Internet to commercial airline passengers, went through years of tests and trials but still trailed its main competitor by a wide margin.
However, the 20-employee company made a game-changing play recently when Southwest Airlines Co., one of the largest domestic airlines, announced Aug. 21 that it planned to make Row 44 the exclusive provider of Wi-Fi for its fleet of more than 530 planes. Southwest had been testing Row 44's Internet devices on four of its Boeing 737 aircraft since March.
"It's a huge deal for Row 44," said Michel Merluzeau, who specializes in aerospace at G2 Global Solutions in Seattle, a research and consulting firm. "When you get the vote of approval of an organization like Southwest, you get a vindication of your technology as well as your production and marketing strategy. It's like earning a triple-A rating."
Southwest and Row 44 are negotiating final terms of the deal, said John Guidon, Row 44's chief executive. Until now, the only other deal Row 44 has inked was with Norwegian Air Shuttle Sweden Ab, a low-cost European carrier with a fleet of about 40 planes. Those devices will be installed next year.
"Needless to say, we're very pleased," Guidon said.
Row 44 plans to begin installing its devices on Southwest planes next year. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. The average cost of buying and installing one of Row 44's Internet devices is about $200,000 per plane. Given Southwest's fleet, that could translate into more than $100 million for Row 44, although that's assuming the company receives full price.
Row 44's technology makes the cabin of a commercial airplane a wireless hotspot, where passengers can use the Internet much as they would in any other Wi-Fi environment. The company builds and installs a server and modem that weigh about 175 pounds and are the size of four small pizza boxes stacked up. They are concealed in the cabin's ceiling and can pick up and send data via satellite. The satellite signals are transmitted by an 8-inch antenna that looks like a bump on the top of the plane.
Southwest plans to charge passengers a use fee likely ranging from $2 to $12, said Angela Vargo, Southwest's manager of product development. The final price could be determined by the length of the flight, or whether the passenger is logging on with a laptop or a mobile device such as a BlackBerry.
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