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Ars Looks At In-Flight Internet — State of the Art vs. Things To Come 101

Posted by timothy
from the we'll-look-back-at-this-one-day-and-laugh dept.
Ars Technica has posted an absorbing article about the short history of Internet and cell-phone access for passengers aboard commercial airplanes, which does a lot to sate my curiosity about the factors holding it back, and gives some ideas about what to look forward to. An excerpt: "Despite the volume of equipped aircraft, we're still in the early days and the continued availability of mile-high WiFi is certainly not guaranteed. It's an expensive, long-term investment to supply consistent and usable broadband Internet service at 35,000 feet. Surveys show people want access, but it's unclear how much (or even if) they'll pay for it. Aircell says that 20 percent of passengers on equipped cross-country flights use its service, but it's mum about numbers on shorter segments."
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Ars Looks At In-Flight Internet — State of the Art vs. Things To Come

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  • When I'm on a flight, I'm usually asleep. And when I am awake, I'm watching videos, reading comics, or reading books on my Nook Color. So wifi might be interesting on a flight, but I definitely wouldn't pay for it.

    • So wifi might be interesting on a flight, but I definitely wouldn't pay for it.

      Last year free Wifi via 3G became ubiquitous where I live on bus rides longer than a couple of hours. I'd guess that every other passenger accesses it from their smartphone or laptop, as the majority have metered data plans on their phones, and the benefits of "free" outweights the lower bandwidth due to several people using the line.

      I also prefer to read, but it'd be handy for those "Oh, I'll google that"-moments. I wouldn't be interested either with the fees they mention in the article, but I'd probably g

      • the benefits of "free" outweights the lower bandwidth due to several people using the line.

        There is also the not insubstantial advantage that a system built into the vehicle is likely to have an external antenna and possiblly a more powerful radio which should allow it to keep a much more stable connection. Some people apparently still buy fixed carphones (rather than just handsfree kits) for this reason.

        My experiance with trying to use 3G mobile broadband sticks on trains is that the connection varies between slow and nonexistant.

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        Last year free Wifi via 3G became ubiquitous where I live on bus rides longer than a couple of hours.

        And in other news, there are places in the world where people take bus rides longer than a couple of hours.
        Seriously, don't they have trains there?

        • by munozdj (1787326)
          In my country, for instance, there is no train service. If you want to travel, you have to do it by plane or bus. The railroad network has been rusting for almost half a century. It's actually very sad. Rail Transport in Colombia [wikipedia.org]
    • Regulars would love Internet access and will pay for it. For short hop flights, where there might be 45-60 minutes of internet time, you can do some email, review a report, check voicemail, instant message with colleagues, and so on. Lots of use cases.

      Road warriors have things planned out. The laptop is hibernating in the seat pocket, or else, increasingly, you can use an instant-on tablet or smartphone. Leisure travelers obviously can use the same tools. The barriers to getting out a computer and u
      • by base3 (539820)

        There's going to be a few air rage incidents before they figure out that they have to specifically ban voice communications in flight.

        The in-flight rag on Delta that had an ad for in-flight WiFi did include a clause specifically banning VoIP apps. With all the Fatherland Security "concerns," I'm surprised they allow the pax any way to communicate with the ground at all while in the air, actually.

  • I haven't considered using in-flight internet. If anything, it's a welcome respite from being connected. My boss usually pays for it, but he loves to micromanage and so it's understandable. I would pay for live TV though. I missed the Superbowl this year because I was on a flight :(.
    • I missed the Superbowl this year because I was on a flight :(

      If only there were some worldwide global communications platform that you could use to somehow stream video from your home to your computer.. oh well, maybe it'll happen one day!

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        I missed the Superbowl this year because I was on a flight :(

        If only there were some worldwide global communications platform that you could use to somehow stream video from your home to your computer.. oh well, maybe it'll happen one day!

        Yes, that's exactly right, because of course we currently have free, high bandwidth internet access on all flights, so why on earth not use it?

    • I would pay for live TV though. I missed the Superbowl this year because I was on a flight :(.

      I'm surprised more airlines don't also have live TV. All the Frontier flights I take have live TV for $6/flight and I think it's free for their non-discount tickets.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Flying SFO to Fort Lauderdale I find it is always worth it. Plug the power, get online and suddenly it becomes a productive day rather than a total waste.

    • by matunos (1587263) on Monday June 06, 2011 @03:25AM (#36347768)
      Question is: how many tax nexus areas do you cross while being productive? Well, at least I have to wonder about such things where I work. ;-)
      • by base3 (539820)
        Do states really have the power to tax transactions happening in their airspace? Could a state insist that state sales tax be levied on in-flight beverages, for example? Or for that matter, suspend sales of alcohol during the few seconds of flight over a dry county :) ?
        • by mangu (126918)

          Could a state insist that state sales tax be levied on in-flight beverages, for example? Or for that matter, suspend sales of alcohol during the few seconds of flight over a dry county :) ?

          Could I get a hooker while the plane is flying over Nevada?

        • by FooAtWFU (699187)
          I don't know about the on-flight commerce; I think the GP was suggesting he works for, say, Amazon, and there are some states which say they're entitled to sales tax on all your transactions if you even have someone in your affiliates program in the state (which is why Amazon has cut ties with all affiliates and ended affiliate programs in, e.g., North Carolina). "Nexus" is a term which shows up in the law around there.

          Would someone working on a plane flying over the state count as presence in that state

        • Do states really have the power to tax transactions happening in their airspace?

          States don't, but the feds do: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_rights [wikipedia.org]

    • Exactly! I can now save a vacation day during travel time so I can take longer vacations.

  • 49% of the comments will be from people who would not use this service and cannot understand why anyone else would want to ever act differently than they do.

    49% of the comments will be from people who would love to use this service and cannot understand why anyone else would want to ever act differently than they do.

    The remaining 2% might be vaguely useful, or they may be dumb like this one.

    • Can I be one of the ones who would not use this service but do understand why people would want to?

      I'll still say they're idiots for contributing toward an always-available always-working world where one is so distracted by one's so important job that he will still waste hours either end through a theatrical security dance. There's only one sort to blame for the TSA: the man who chooses to fly.

      • I'll still say they're idiots for contributing toward an always-available always-working world where one is so distracted by one's so important job that he will still waste hours either end through a theatrical security dance. There's only one sort to blame for the TSA: the man who chooses to fly.

        Sheesh!

        What about those people that are going on, you know, a vacation?

        How can you blame those who fly for the TSA being idiots? What about the terrorists on 9/11? What about the government/TSA themselves for being power grubbing and/or paranoid asshats? Are you saying people should just drive everywhere, wasting days of their lives rather than hours?

        Honestly, your comments usually at least have some sense to them, but this.. I don't get.

    • by GauteL (29207)

      "49% of the comments will be from people who would not use this service and cannot understand why anyone else would want to ever act differently than they do.
      49% of the comments will be from people who would love to use this service and cannot understand why anyone else would want to ever act differently than they do."

      The difference is that the first 49% are irrelevant. The second 49% are not. Why? Because the last 49% would make the system commercially viable, and the first 49% does not have to pay for it

  • by mcrbids (148650) on Monday June 06, 2011 @01:55AM (#36347500) Journal

    Since my software company is still mostly regional in nature, it's rare for me to fly more than a 1-2 hour hop at a time. It's barely worth pulling my laptop out at all since I have to wait until about 15-30 minutes until after boarding to begin, and have to put things away 15-30 minutes before actually getting off the plane.

    If there was some way that I could sit down, plug in and sign on, and use my computer while the plane is preflighted, taxi, waiting at the taxiway, takeoff, and then final descent from 10,000 to landed and departing the plane, I'd be far, far more likely to pay for the short-ish hops that I tend towards.

    And don't give me the "radio interference" crap - there's no evidence at all to support this and it's routinely ignored by anybody in the industry. Think about it: how many routine flyers, do you think, have forgotten to turn off their phone when they sit down, or just didn't bother? How many incidents have occurred as a result?

    It's zero, in case you are wondering....

    On another note, I routinely send texts while flying my private plane, which I also use for the shorter end of the hops I take. (whichever's cheaper and/or more convenient)

    • Here's an interesting article for you: http://www.rvs.uni-bielefeld.de/publications/Incidents/DOCS/Research/Rvs/Article/EMI.html [uni-bielefeld.de]

      Here's an interesting quote: "Nordwall reports that the RTCA Committee 177 inquiry found 137 `incidents' (pilot reports, anecdotes) reported either to them, or to the FAA/NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) program, or to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). VOR reception (2) was affected in 111 incidents -- by far the most common occurrence. From the 33

    • by nhtshot (198470) on Monday June 06, 2011 @04:30AM (#36347998) Homepage

      "And don't give me the "radio interference" crap - there's no evidence at all to support this and it's routinely ignored by anybody in the industry"

      I love how technology types tend to think they know everything about every piece of technology because they can use VB.

      Aside from being a geek and occasional programmer, I'm also a pilot. I've also personally encountered navigational interference from a cellular phone. I think that qualifies as "evidence at all to support this". You can also refer to the link posted below that gives detailed accounts of specific interference on scheduled airline flights.

      Seriously, airplanes are not computers. The rules are not meant to be broken. The rules are intended to be as minimally invasive as possible while still protecting against all potential issues. Note: This statement does NOT apply to TSA rules. They are maximally invasive and minimally effective. I'm only speaking to FAA rules regarding flight safety.

      The real issue in this case is that some devices can/do cause interference and others don't. But, on a commercial airliner with hundreds of passengers that might each be carrying a potentially interfering device, the rule is that everybody has to turn them off and safely store them. Of course, the issue of a laptop being a potential projectile during a rough take-off/landing is also a concern. Short of having flight crews carry around an FCC manual and an RF meter to test every single device that a passenger might want to use, I think the current situation is a reasonable compromise.

      So, basically, you'll never get what you want. The FAA and the airlines are in the business of protecting and delivering passengers respectively. They are not in the "allow some random passenger to use whatever device he wants that can potentially screw up the airplane at any time" business. If you want that level of service, charter a Gulfstream. Small, private aircraft can and do provide that level of service. If some electronic device is screwing with navigation, it's very easy to know who's device it is and have them turn it off. That's not easy on a commercial airliner.

      As for the article topic, I would LOVE to have this available and would happily pay probably as much as $20 to use it on a cross-country or international flight. Being able to accomplish something with otherwise wasted time is always a win.

      • by hubie (108345) on Monday June 06, 2011 @04:42AM (#36348040)
        I'm part of a research group where we fly all sorts of electronic crap on helicopters. We typically take off and land with computers and other stuff running. However, as an example of what you talk about, we have had a flight or two where we are flying and the pilot asks us "OK, who has their phone on?" because he can pick up the interference (I'm not sure exactly, but I think it was from GSM phones).
        • by Agripa (139780)

          However, as an example of what you talk about, we have had a flight or two where we are flying and the pilot asks us "OK, who has their phone on?" because he can pick up the interference (I'm not sure exactly, but I think it was from GSM phones).

          Any phone using TDMA is just about the worst case for interference because the access method itself is effectively low frequency modulated AM which is easily detected (in the electronics engineering sense) by any non-linear device. The usual culprit oddly enough is

        • Did he have a headset / headphones on?

          Put your phone next to your speakers and have someone call you. That sound was almost certainly what gave it away.
          • by hubie (108345)
            He always had his headset on, but I do recall him saying that he picked it up on one of the instruments.
        • by mjwx (966435)

          I'm part of a research group where we fly all sorts of electronic crap on helicopters. We typically take off and land with computers and other stuff running. However, as an example of what you talk about, we have had a flight or two where we are flying and the pilot asks us "OK, who has their phone on?" because he can pick up the interference (I'm not sure exactly, but I think it was from GSM phones).

          Put a GSM phone near a particularly delicate receiver and see what happens. I've seen managers get sacked for having their phones on in a call centre, the risk of crosstalk and shock is too great with so many sensitive audio devices. I'd bet a pilots headset was just as sensitive.

          People (idiots) think that because their TV has become shielded enough that their mobile does not interfere with it means that mobiles are now safe, in actual fact, TV's have just been shielded.

          BTW, computers without Wifi and

      • by AmiMoJo (196126)

        Did you forget to post the link? I am interested in reading it. Cheers.

      • by xtracto (837672)

        No shit. In the last month I had to travel a lot within the EU.

        On around 5 of those flights all passengers could *listen* to the interference of a mobile into the cabin communication system. This was while the lady was trying to tell the safety procedures; you could here the signal inteference which was a bit like this [youtube.com]. No way I will feel at ease knowing pilots have to consider an additional "variable" while taking me home.

        On the other hand. I could live with a cabled LAN to which you can plug your laptop

      • by gad_zuki! (70830)

        Agreed. There's all sorts of evidence.

        The real issue is why no one is partnering with the FAA to get low EMI laptops going. I could see this as a feature in business class laptops. I imagine if its overly shielded and can be controlled by onboard wireless commands to disable its wireless/bluetooth, etc it'll work just fine. Some will balk at how big brothery this would be, but others might not care because they just want to get some work done during that long "we're starting to descend soon" call the pilot

        • by tlhIngan (30335)

          The real issue is why no one is partnering with the FAA to get low EMI laptops going. I could see this as a feature in business class laptops. I imagine if its overly shielded and can be controlled by onboard wireless commands to disable its wireless/bluetooth, etc it'll work just fine. Some will balk at how big brothery this would be, but others might not care because they just want to get some work done during that long "we're starting to descend soon" call the pilot makes which can take up to an hour.

          Or

          • by gad_zuki! (70830)

            Thats a pretty defeatist approach. Look at backpacks that fold open so you can scan your laptop without removing it.

            If I presented that to you 10 years ago you'd think it was crazy and say "sheez just open the laptop bag."

            Now I see professional travelers with these things at a rate of 80% or so. I have one also.

            I don't see why the EM issue would be so difficult. Most of the changes would be trivial shielding and its not going to add that much when they are designing a new product.

            Also its worth noting that

    • by thegarbz (1787294)

      And don't give me the "radio interference" crap - there's no evidence at all to support this and it's routinely ignored by anybody in the industry.

      You may think yourself a lone hero against air flight regulations but your ignorant statement is common in nearly every industry where there is a rule which people disagree with. I can tell you radio interference is nothing to be scoffed at and we have had an oil refinery shut down traced to someone using a two-way radio in an equipment room. There are also documented cases of equipment causing interference to some equipment.

      In general your issue is that the rules are designed for the lowest common denomina

    • by Alioth (221270) <no@spam> on Monday June 06, 2011 @06:28AM (#36348400) Journal

      Radio interference from cell phones is real.

      A few years ago I was flying (privately, in a light aircraft). I was flying with a friend on a trip, and it was to be his first real instrument approach (in the rain, at night). I was at the time instrument current.

      And it was a good job too. Seconds after ATC cleared us for the approach, his wife called and his phone went off. Immediately, all audio was obliterated by "bip b b bip b b bip b b bip b b bip BRRRRRRRR" (if you own a GSM phone, you'll know the sound if you've ever left it near your car radio, or any audio equipment). If ATC had called at that moment to tell us to do something else, we wouldn't have heard a thing over that noise. Fortunately he could hand over to me and I could continue the approach while he dug his phone out and switched it off.

      At the very least it was highly distracting, at the worst, ATC might have wanted to tell us something important and we'd have missed it.

      • by Solandri (704621)
        Putting this together with TFA, why is it that the airplane mode in seemingly all cell phones shuts off both the cellular service and the wireless? If your commercial flight has WiFi, you can't use it on your smartphone without the interference-causing cellular service also being on.
      • by emj (15659)

        Radio interference from cell phones is real.

        Back when phones had antennas I used to push the elevator button by placing the cell phone antenna beside it and make a call. It worked almost everytime.

    • by brunes69 (86786)

      The reason you can't use electronics during takeoff and landing has nothing to do with additional interference, it has to do with distraction. They want you to be able to see and hear any and all instructions from the flight crew immediately. If you have earphones on that are not connected to their systems (where they can pre-empt them), then that is not possible, and dangerous.

    • by drolli (522659)

      No, i give you "the radio interference crap".

      I did measurements using electronics which was not designed to pick up signals in the GHz range. If i turn on my mobile phone, these goes mad.

      The fact is simple: if you ask me to design a amplifier, switch, etc, then i will test it against the EMI which was specified. I wont give it a full spectrum test. when most commercial aircrafts where designed, the frequency ranges used for GSM/UMTS/WLAN/Bluetooth where not used. This means that 100s of electronic subsyste

    • Is it just me or do non-US carriers seem to switch the "no electronics" sign off sooner? No idea if that's actually true, but when I fly Air Canada or Lufthansa, even in US airspace it certainly seems like they're much faster to say "ok, you can pull your stuff out now". Would that be FAA policy or just airline policy?

    • by evilviper (135110)

      Think about it: how many routine flyers, do you think, have forgotten to turn off their phone when they sit down, or just didn't bother? How many incidents have occurred as a result? It's zero, in case you are wondering....

      "Think about it" all you want, that won't make your gut feeling a fact. Let's try some actual facts:

      http://m.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.php?c_id=1&objectid=10701029 [nzherald.co.nz]

    • by cthulhu11 (842924)
      The ever-decreasing row pitch and lack of ways to stop the dumbass in front of you from reclining without warning have made it impossible to use a laptop on a plane anyway.
  • I find that 20% number hard to believe. I make the trip from Seattle to Atlanta fairly regularly and I hardly ever notice anyone using the in-flight internet. It's hard to justify if your laptop battery will die half-way through the flight.
    • I wonder if a large portion of that is people connecting with smartphones/iphones. Might be something to look for next time you fly.
      • by ncc74656 (45571) *

        I wonder if a large portion of that is people connecting with smartphones/iphones. Might be something to look for next time you fly.

        This. I usually have my phone out for reading ebooks, playing games, and watching movies, but the handful of times they've had free WiFi on flights, I haven't hesitated to connect. I usually have a USB battery pack with me, so running down the phone's battery isn't an issue.

    • by FooAtWFU (699187)

      My last United flight (actually Continental), IAH-SFO, had power outlets under the seat. Real, three-prong power outlets. Of course, given that it's United, it's only a matter of time before they start trying to charge you separately for that, too.

      (Each and every seat had a video screen in front of it with a credit card swipe slot for you to pay for the television service. and also so they could advertise to you, naturally. i hate you, United.)

  • by matunos (1587263)
    I want my mile-high entertainment the old fashioned way: sneaking in the lav.
  • in GENERICAIRLINE you can enjoy our in-flight intertainment system on every flight.

    Almost as lame as this comment.

    • by vlm (69642)

      in GENERICAIRLINE you can enjoy our in-flight intertainment system on every flight.

      Almost as lame as this comment.

      Lame, but knowing the type of people running this, I'm guessing the really lame part of this will be ads screaming the speed of 10 megs/sec in 50 point font and the download cap of 250 kilobytes per flight in 4 point font.

      The whole wireless industry is such a dilbertian confuse-opoly whenever I hear anything about it, I assume they're trying to screw over the customer, more so than any other industry out there. So I avoid it as much as humanly possible. A pity, as I'd probably be a good profitable custome

  • ...which causes a huge business problem.

    The tech isn't cheap, and it isn't easy to use on the carrier's POV. So they're handing it off to companies like Gogo. Gogo needs to pay the bills so they charge users for the service. I can be amused without internet for over 5 hours, and I resent having to pay for internet access.

    I'm not the only one either. It doesn't matter if your'e a techie or not, being a tightwad crosses all sorts of boundaries.

    if they can't solve getting access in flight cheap enough to t

  • I've tried it on a Norwegian flight (2h). Low bandwidth and high ping made the connexion only good for light surfing and IM. Also, the connexion was unstable, and I experienced several 10sec+ drops.

    I would pay for it on a 4h+ flight though. Sucks being offline on those longs flights.

  • Take a laptop, by all means, but internet-connectivity is hardly necessary or even desirable even on a long flight.

    The laptop will die before you get there, guaranteed, and most planes *don't* have charge points that the passenger can access. And yet, without Internet, you can watch movies, listen to music, read books, program (it's brilliant for programming if you get a quiet night flight), draft email (yes, email does NOT have to be sent live every time), play games, etc. If you can't occupy yourselves

    • by tzanger (1575)

      I've used gogo's internet several times. It's exactly the same speed as a modern CDMA (Verizon) mobile internet connection. No drops, consistently 50ms latency, no apparent port blocking, although forced web proxy. I really don't know what kind of shit hardware you're using, because my 4yo macbook with original battery still gets 4h of battery life doing the kinds of things you'll be using internet for on a flight (i.e. not compiling or gaming). Hell, my 4yo Toshiba U300 with a new battery running Ubuntu g

    • by rhook (943951)

      Get a laptop that isn't old and you should easily get 4.5+ hours battery life. Many airlines have power outlets in the seats now (no, you cannot charge off of them), but you will need an airline adapter. If you want to be sure you have an outlet all you need to do is fly business class. It is much more comfortable anyway.

  • Unless you have a tablet or smaller device, WiFi will be useless on an airplane because as soon as you fire up your laptop, sign up, and pay your fee, the old lady in the seat in front of you will fully recline her seat. You won't be able to open your laptop more than an inch or so, unless you forgo your tray table. And, if you politely ask her to pull her seat up a bit, she will turn into the old lady that walked across the ceiling in that shitty apocalypse movie from a couple of years ago.

    The airl
  • I would pay them a dollar or so for service if they offered it on short flights (4 hours) if I can get guaranteed service. The 'state of the art' is very slow, very intermittent service and they'll charge you $15 for the privilege of giving you an access code even if it never works during the whole flight + $0.25/minute when it actually works.

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