Fluent Takes Content to New Heights

In a bid to make the skies a little more enjoyable for business travelers, Verizon Airfone will offer a new in-flight information and entertainment service for in-flight laptop users this fall. The new service, called JetConnect, lifted off this September in several undisclosed markets. It will be available on a widespread basis on most domestic flights later this fall. The Verizon Airfone service is intended to give passengers a diversion, while providing airlines and content providers with additional revenue sources.

The Verizon Airfone service lets passengers connect their own laptops to the on-seat airphones and gain access to a walled garden of information. Initially, Fluent Media will supply most of the content: a combination of news, sports scores, movie reviews, entertainment gossip, and stock quotes. In addition, Verizon Airfone will offer game content from GameHouse and its own instant messaging services, which are compatible with most commercial offerings, including AOL Time Warner's Instant Messenger and Yahoo!'s Chat programs.

Verizon Airfone has plans to expand its content offerings and to enhance existing ones. One current feature is access to Fluent's Weissmann Travel Reports, a directory of destination-specific guides for major cities across the country. In-flight users can search the directory for destination travel content such as dining options, tourist venues, and travel information. Eventually, Fluent may add two-way communications to the mix so travelers can make restaurant reservations from the air. "In the first phase of the roll-out you can't book reservations, but that's on the drawing board for the next phase," says John Twohey, Fluent Media's general manager. "We're looking at quite a few additions."

Network game play and family offerings are two additional content options being considered for the future, as is a teleconference service based on instant messaging. Analysts say other applications such as downloadable music and pay-per-use video would also do well if offered. Although final pricing has not been set, executives say cost will be based on airline segments—a single take-off and landing—and should range between $5 and $10 per segment.

Early tests point to success, says Eric Harvey, product manager with Verizon Airfone. "We've test-flighted the service twice already. The first time, we had 18 people doing instant messages. We've seen tremendous early acceptance," he says.

The move into in-flight is a way to extend the reach of online content and capture additional revenue for beleaguered content providers, which have seen declining revenues. However, the move into non-traditional venues does bring up several housekeeping issues. Most importantly, providers must get copyright permission clearances for all of the content available to passengers. This becomes more difficult to do when most writer's groups such as the National Writers Union and the American Society of Journalists and Authors campaigning heavily against so-called all-rights contracts or contracts that give publishers the ability to resell content without additional compensation. In Fluent Media's case, copyright was something the company took care of from the start, says Twohey. "We consulted with all the publishers we have relationships with and have agreements that permit usage," he says. "We were very careful because it's a new medium and a new community of users. We secured permissions that let us take the content through to new channels."

One analyst believes that the Verizon Airfone service should generate plenty of interest. "Longer term, there will be a demand for these services," says Yankee Group's Aditya Kishore. "In any environment where you are sitting in one place for eight hours, you're going to want something to do."

(www.fluentmediainfo.com; www.verizon.com; www.yankeegroup.com)