A Southwest 737-700 seen at Dallas Love Field sporting a Row44 Raydome between the strobe and vertical stabilizer.  Photo: JL Johnson | Airlinereporter.com

Southwest 737-700 (N711HK) seen at Dallas Love Field with Row 44 raydome between the strobe and vertical stabilizer. It also sports a retro-livery design.

On November 20, 2013 Southwest Airlines announced that, effective immediately, customers could use their portable electronic devices (PEDs) gate-to-gate. This was expected as other airlines had been making similar announcements earlier in the month after the FAA relaxed their rules. What wasn’t expected was that in-flight entertainment (IFE), through their Row 44 WiFi, would also be available gate-to-gate, making them the first U.S. airline to offer a seamless integrated experience, regardless of altitude.

Southwest Airlines has long been a renegade, going against the grain, often being successful with that strategy. When the industry zigs, they zag and usually find themselves with a competitive advantage. And that’s exactly what they did when they bucked the trend of U.S. airlines signing on with traditional passenger-level-hardware IFE. Instead, Southwest chose Row 44, an industry underdog to provide their connectivity. Row 44’s network is powered solely by satellite, whereas (at the time) the other big domestic players (i.e. GoGo) focused on terrestrial (land-based cell tower) service.

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I’m a known critic of IFE at the airline-provided-hardware level. I am of the school of thought that if you can give me WiFi, I’ll find a way to entertain myself, with my own device(s). BYOD (that is, “bring your own device”) is gaining in popularity across many industries and applications, so why not with airlines? Traditional IFE is expensive to implement, heavy to fly around, and requires added maintenance. With passengers likely to bring the added weight of their own devices anyway, why not simply eliminate the cost and complexity?

Southwest’s in-flight connectivity is nothing new, but has matured well beyond basic WiFi. I recently had the opportunity to try out the new gate-to-gate, or in my case, gate-to-gate-to-gate Row 44 on a business trip from Kansas City with a stopover at Dallas Love Field on my way to San Antonio. Let me say, I was impressed.

Gate-to-gate connectivity: $8 per device, all day.  Photo: JL Johnson | Airlinereporter.com

Gate-to-gate connectivity: $8 per device, all day. Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

I have long been a frequent Southwest passenger and have had the opportunity to watch as they improve Row 44’s offering, and continue to roll it out across their fleet. What began as simple, and sometimes buggy, in-flight connectivity (IFC) on just a fraction of planes, has now morphed into something much more advanced: Diverse and capable BYOD in-flight entertainment, IFE.

15 free live TV channels available to stream compliments of Dish Network. Photo: JL Johnson | Airlinereporter.com

15 free live TV channels available to stream, compliments of Dish Network                                  Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

According to Rob Hahn, Southwest customer advocacy team leader and one of many @SouthwestAir twitter co-hosts: “Approximately 77% of the Southwest’s fleet is equipped with Row 44.” Southwest offers a number of IFC and IFE options, some of which are even free. At the time of my review, 12/17/2013,  they were as follows:

  • Games – Sudoku and Crosswords, with more on the way: Free
  • Very limited web browsing, Southwest.com, Skymall.com, flight tracker: Free
  • 15 live television channels and 12 TV series’ – Free (Compliments of Dish Network)
  • iMessage connectivity for Apple devices – $2 per device, all day. The company is exploring options for users of Android devices, however, I suspect the fractured user experience and incredible variability/implementation of Android OS could be a significant challenge for them.
  • All day WiFi- $8, per device
  • Over 25 current and classic movies across 10 genres- $5 per movie, per device, all day

I opted for the $8 WiFi connection.

I forgot to test the throughput of my connection but can say Southwest’s Row 44 offered a solid browsing speed even with a number of my fellow passengers partaking in the free TV. Bandwidth-intensive activities such as VoIP, Netflix and Hulu are banned for the reason of the common experience, but I suspect this is more to allow the better control over usage, and likely revenue, should they choose to begin charging for TV.

Decent FaceTime quality over Southwest's Row44 WiFi. NOTE: Don't do it, you'll annoy your fellow passengers. Photo: JL Johnson | Airlinereporter.com

Decent FaceTime quality over Southwest’s Row44 WiFi. NOTE: Don’t do it, you’ll annoy your fellow passengers. Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

While the common VoIP services were not able to connect (I tried!), I was surprised to see that I was able to get a very quick, muted, FaceTime call back home to my kiddo and his pal. This was for experimentation only, no conversation–I wouldn’t condone that–just wanted to see if it would work, and it did, with fair video quality.

Southwest's well designed, intuitive flight tracker is sure to keep the curious passenger entertained. Photo: JL Johnson | Airlinereporter.com

Southwest’s well-designed, intuitive flight tracker is sure to keep the curious passenger entertained. Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

The flight tracker, which is free for all and displays as an inserted browser bar menu, is well-designed and displays all of the info one would expect: Time to arrival, altitude, heading, ground speed, and a map. Notice the screen-shot above was taken at 4,429 feet, well below 10,000. It feels weird to have electronic devices on below 10,000 feet, but it also quite nice.

Free games, with more to come later. Photo: JL Johnson | Airlinereporter.com

Free games, with more to come later – Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

The IFC/IFE wars seem long and undying. There are many folks in the aviation community that strongly support airline-provided hardware. And while resistance to BYOD is just now starting to ease, the folks at Southwest Airlines and Row 44 have long been pioneering the BYOD experience.  With gate-to-gate entertainment and connectivity offered by no one else in the US, and perhaps the world, Southwest again stands apart from the herd.

SENIOR CORRESPONDENT - LEE'S SUMMIT, MO. JL is a self described “medium shot” at a non-aviation industry Fortune-500. He’s a semi-frequent traveler, social media addict and avid planespotter. A proud Midwesterner, he’s based in Lee’s Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. Email: jl@airlinereporter.com

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14 Comments

I flew CMH-LAS-RNO on a Sunday and was able to get the NFL Redzone channel for like 6 bucks… It was awesome.

No Fly Zone

When extending to ‘read the rest of this article,’ I got some pop-up thanking me for my $8 purchase. I do not know what this is, but you can bet your life that I did not authorize any payments. A bump, I’m sure, but please be aware that you site may be at risk. I’ve never seen this one before and yes, my systems are well protected. In no case will I spend $8 to read the second half of a post on this site. We already know that. Just a head-up. I do not know the origin of the popper, but I am surprised that it got through. seeing it twice is more than a bit strange and of course I’ll be watching my accounts with extreme care. Best wishes to all,

-C.

LOL! You do realize No Fly Zone that the “$8 purchase” was just a photo of the author’s iPad screen on board the Southwest flight he wrote this article about right?

StarWars Fan

Wow, apparently you didn’t take time to read the actual “popup” because you would have seen it was a screen-grab with some of the author’s info meant to show an example. Lmao.

Hi,

Do you know how they run the games? Is it through the browser (flash, Java)?

Best,

TL

JL Johnson

Hi, TL. Everything is via browser. Unsure of underlying tech but it isn’t flash as I did my review on an iPad and we all know Apple hates flash on mobile devices. I suspect JavaScript or a derivative of it, maybe EXT_JS. Thanks for reading, take care.

JLJ

Thanks man, much appreciated!

Hi JL Johnson,

Sorry to bother you again. I need some clarifications and was wondering if you could help me.

What is the difference between a supplier of an IFE system (e.g. Thales Panasonic or Lufthansa) and a content provider (spa fax, bluebox)? Would a system supplier be able to upload the content to the embedded computer also without a content supplier? Further, the main difference between a company like Gogo and Spa fax is the fact that gogo would not need to upload anything since it’s is done all through wireless right? If that is the case, who would be in charge of getting the public performance licensing? Would it be the airlines or would it be included in the contract?

Lastly, I heard that there was a Hollywood ban on recent movies for wireless IFE streaming. Do you know how recent in terms of days?

Sorry for the novel, thank you for your help. Much appreciated!

TL

Worst wifi connection you could ever link up to!!!
I spend more time loading my Netflix then being about to watch it!!!
YouTube video don’t load!!!
Definitely NOT worth the 8$!!!

JL johnson

Hi, Brice. Inflight WiFi isn’t intended for Netflix streaming, no domestic carrier supports Netflix. Southwest does for the moment offer free TV through a partnership via Dish Network.

Dan G

Used the wifi on a Oakland to Norfolk filght. The wifi was very slow to point of unusable. Bring a Kindle and read a book next time.

Hey Dan,

That is a pretty common experience with almost any system/airline. I have flown many combos and sometimes the same system works and other times it doesn’t. So, I go into a WiFi flight not expecting it to work well and if it does — a nice bonus!

David | AirlineReporter

It is nice experience to watch your favoutie bengali channel in airline.

KevinVF

Shame on me X4:
I’ve used this service about four times, and 90% of the time it was so slow it was not really usable. On this flight, I tried all flight to run a speed test and wasn’t able to. I suspect there is no throttling, and someone is always trying to run video and there is insufficient throttling. I’m also not sure what the refund policy is, but every time I think to bother, it seems like more work than it’s worth.

I know I have no one to blame but myself, but if I can keep a few folks from wasting money, I’m happy to share my bad experiences. I guess I’m hoping one of these days it will start working reasonably well.

At this point, 2 years running, I have to classify it as a SCAM, even though I like SouthWest as an airline. Definitely use at your own risk. Good luck!

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