Go to Homepage
The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.

Whither Wi-Fi at 30,000ft?

You might lose your mother-in-law in the download but the phone will work. Airlines examine Wi-Fi and Internet aloft.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

Change font size Smaller font Larger font

Print This ArticleE-mail This Page

AIRLINES HAVE LONG averred that the words ‘Internet’ and ‘In-flight’ should never be seen, except with something in between – preferably 30,000ft of vertical distance, with the former firmly on terra firma. They insist you switch off your mobile phones in the aircraft cabin, as well they should. Cell phones are a hazard and not just because they turn your mind to mush and cost a fortune to buy, upgrade, and accessorise, before the latest model turns up on the shelves at half the price.

Mobile phones can interfere with aircraft navigation. Studies reveal that the chances of your landing at the destination printed on your ticket drop by 50 percent if the captain happens upon your iPhone and decides to watch a movie over your shoulder, instead of keeping his hand on the joystick. On the other hand passengers report a 100 percent improvement in their in-flight entertainment experience with zero announcements and screen freezes. Okay, so you landed in Baghdad, not Bombay. But you watched an entire movie. Surely that’s worth braving a rocket attack or two.

Send us your Feedback / Letter to the Editor   Share Share This Page

The only thing more dangerous than my cell phone is my refrigerator, which contains new life forms, mostly green and mouldy, none as yet intelligent. It is part of my “human laboratory” experiment for the betterment of mankind. There was one UFO sighting recently. But nothing materialised. The Unidentified Fried Object remains unidentified. If nothing more, this programme will offer valuable insights into WMD.

The only thing more dangerous than my cell phone aloft, is my fridge, which contains new life forms, none as yet intelligent

While a strong lobby against phones aloft persists, the debate continues on whether cell phones and mobile equipment actually disrupt navigation, with electro-magnetic background chatter causing erroneous readouts and so on. People still use their phones in-flight. They can be easily tracked as their RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) footprint is all over the place. Yet this does not happen. The fact is there is no evidence of a mobile phone ever causing any in-flight glitch.

So we have the purported bad guys – cell phones, with signals reaching out over 30km – and the good guys – Wi-Fi, with signals limited to less than 100m, and Bluetooth, that struggles over 10m. Wi-Fi does not seemingly interfere with aircraft flight systems and has been given the nod after the ill-starred attempt to bring the Internet in-flight with ‘Connexion by Boeing’. The project proved expensive and lacked customers. Boeing pulled the plug late 2006, claiming the “market had not materialized”.

So how will Wi-Fi work at 30,000ft? Airlines will broadly be able to offer Wireless services in their cabins through one of two sources – terrestrial cell towers transmitting upwards, or via satellites transmitting downwards with uninterrupted coverage over oceans – eventually at Broadband speeds. Virgin America and American Airlines, in a move emulated by Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines, have opted to work ground up with a company called Aircell (www.aircell.com). The aircraft will receive uninterrupted signals from cell towers across the United States at speeds of around just 3Mbps per plane at a passenger cost of just over US$12 per flight. Not fast. You could try laboriously downloading your mother-in-law but what if you lost the connection? Oops.

The good news for pin-stripers is WiFi will be available at a blazing 30 megabits per second at around US$6 per flight

Others will opt for companies like Row 44 (www.row44.com) offering live TV feed, VOIP, and Internet access at Broadband speeds, from satellites. This is good news for BlackBerry owners and pin-stripers in a rush to click open their state-of-the-art laptops. Wi-Fi will be available at a blazing 30 megabits per second at around US$6 per flight. This will translate into lower DSL speeds for passengers, still fast enough to download entertainment off an onboard server. By 2009, passenger jets will be in a position to offer 802.11b/g Wi-Fi coverage routinely.

Lufthansa, Air France, Qantas and Emirates, are testing systems for onboard connectivity while discount airline JetBlue has gone a step further, offering BlackBerry devices free access to Wi-Fi, LiveTV and satellite radio, as well as to Yahoo Mail, Gmail, Hotmail MSN and AOL, on its ‘BetaBlue’ Airbus A320.
One reason airlines are getting strongly behind these initiatives is the potential to make money. Cash-strapped behemoths need new revenue sources apart from cramming in more sardine seats, and pay-to-use Internet services are looking increasingly attractive. But do passengers really want to hear Dear John plead with his wife to take him back (after his secretary dumped him), on a 14-hour transpacific flight?

US airlines are not keen on voice telephony aloft but others are dipping their toes into these waters. Air France is testing free e-mail and cellphone services on an Airbus A318 flying European routes. And Qantas is experimenting with the Airbus/SITA OnAir (www.onair.aero) for onboard Internet connectivity through BlackBerry devices and seat-back consoles. To use OnAir to make calls, all a passenger needs is a GSM mobile device with international roaming and a plane kitted out with the system. It’s as easy as saying “802.11b/g”.

Send us your Feedback / Letter to the Editor

Previous Columns
Note: Telephone and fax numbers, e-mails, website addresses, rates and other details may change or get dated. Please check with your dealer/agent/service-provider or directly with the parties concerned. SmartTravel Asia accepts no responsibility for any inadvertent inaccuracies in this article. Links to websites are provided for the viewer's convenience. SmartTravel Asia accepts no responsibility for content on linked websites or any viruses or malicious programs that may reside therein. Linked website content is neither vetted nor endorsed by SmartTravelAsia. Please read our Terms & Conditions.