WiFi in the Sky: In-Flight Internet Coming Soon

Gadgets Tech News

The Wall Street Journal (this article now free) has an interesting piece on the coming amenities for travelers in the sky. U.S. airlines plan to offer in-flight Internet connections within 12 months. Think of it as the airplane cabin becoming a WiFi “hotspot.” Carriers will begin making announcements within a few months, and service will begin early next year.

Using your cellphone in the air, on the other hand, may take longer to be implemented. This is mostly due to strong consumer opposition. Apparently, most of us (Americans, at least) don’t want chatty cellphone neighbors while flying.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considered lifting a ban on cellphones in the sky but recently recommended ending that consideration after more than 8,000 consumer complaints. Interestingly enough, airlines in Europe and the Middle East may offer cellphone services aboard airplanes later this year. While Internet access in-flight is the priority in the U.S., cellular service is likely to come even earlier in Europe, the Middle East and Asia where opposition seems to be minimal.

A bunch of deals are in the works. Dubai-based Emirates plans to offer in-flight cellphone service on flights to Asia starting sometime during the summer. Qantas Airways has plans to begin an in-flight cellphone trial in Australia before June. And if the technology becomes popular, it might put U.S. airlines under pressure to keep up competitively.

But before you think this will mean a cabin full of cellphone conversations, the current technology is limited in capacity. Only 14 calls or fewer can take place simultaneously. So if you were the fifteen person to make a call, you’d get a variation of the “no signal” message.

Back to WiFi while flying: A company called AirCell paid $31.3 million at an FCC auction last year for radio frequency to be allocated for Internet service. And the Internet service already has the approval of both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration. The company is currently building out its network of 80 to 100 ground towers and is in talks with multiple airlines.

AirCell’s equipment can be installed in a plane overnight by airline maintenance workers and will act as a WiFi “hotspot” for the cabin. Laptops, BlackBerrys, and other PDAs will be able to connect. It will cost about $100,000 to implement per plane with less than 100 pounds of equipment.

The service is likely to be attractive to airlines, as AirCell plans to share revenues. The idea is for the service to cost about the same as existing WiFi offerings, something around $10 per day. And customers that are already part of existing service programs like T-Mobile, iPass and Boingo will receive additional discounts. Not many details are available on the speed, but it’s supposed to be about the same as WiFi service on the ground.

And it looks like AirCell plans to block voice calls over the Internet (i.e. Skype), except for pilots, flight attendants, and air marshals. The company did mention that it can expand its service to include cellular voice calls, though it’s unlikely to happen until a year or two after the implementation of Internet.

Whatever the case, you may consider buying stock in companies that produce noise-canceling headphones; I have a feeling that they’re going to get much more popular (especially for international flights)…

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