Friday, August 15, 2008

Internet to Soothe the Savage Flyer

What's more fun that snagging the last seat on the 5 o'clock flight across the country? Why, it's you being the filling in a sandwich cookie of three disgruntled fliers, cheek to jowl, with nothing to do for five or six hours but progressively increase your blood pressure. Suddenly it occurs to you that "coach" is only one letter removed from "roach," perhaps an apt description of your seatmates. If only you could get online to distract yourself by answering email or finding a game to play. But that's impossible. There's no Internet superhighway in the sky. Or is there?

Relief may be at hand, intrepid road warrior. According to a recent story in the Washington Post, major airlines are readying a rollout of onboard WiFi Internet access, starting later this year. A flying free WiFi hotspot? Wow!

Ixnay on the eefray. You don't really expect a courtesy service in an industry where courtesy fell out of the sky years ago, do you? Oh, no. What the air carriers are cooking up is pay as you go Internet access. You pay and the plane may even go... eventually. But you won't care as much as you do now. You'll be browsing the latest headlines and stock prices. Or perhaps blogging on the joy of flying.

Whatever you do online, the airlines know two things. After taking away free soft drinks, blankets, pillows, meals, little bags of peanuts and luggage checking, they better come up with some way to relieve the mounting stress of the flying public before everybody pops a valve. By being clever, they can do this and make a bundle selling the same Internet service you expect for free in a sandwich shop.

Paid Internet service is a double win for airlines that can get their planes outfitted as quickly as possible. Hungry, bored, agitated, stressed out, burned out travelers will gladly pay through the nose for an onboard Internet fix. The soothing effect begins as fast as your laptop can connect. As a way of numbing potentially hostile fliers, the Internet is far superior to alcoholic beverages. Alcohol depresses your inhibitions, which may all that is keeping you from letting them know what you really think of their operation. But logged-in and tuned-out, you'll be a model customer. Internet for a fee would appear to be the perfect add-on service.

The magic that will make this all work is a ground based network of radio towers and in-plane hotspots provided by Aircell. Aircell won an FCC spectrum auction in 2006 to acquire an exclusive license for air-to-ground broadband communications. The uplink and downlink from tower to aircraft is very similar to cellular technology. The system transmits and receives in the upper portion of the 800 MHz band using the EV-DO protocol, similar to Verizon and Sprint cellular broadband service.

On the aircraft, avionics hardware converts the uplink/downlink data stream to a 802.11a/b/g WiFi hotspot that blankets the passenger cabin. This wireless broadband should be accessible by nearly all laptop computers and many cellphones. If your gadget can connect to a WiFi hotspot and you have a $10 bill in your pocket, you can join the mile-high browser club. That's the expected price of service on Delta for flights of 3 hours or less: $9.95. For longer flights the price will be a few dollars more.

In addition to Delta, who else is revving up for airborne broadband? American Airlines and Virgin America are also getting their fleets Internet-ready as fast as they can. Jet Blue already has limited online services. At some point, fairly soon, we'll probably reach a tipping point where wireless Internet access will be as ubiquitous as it has become in hotels. Business travelers will start shunning airplanes that aren't connected as if they still had two wings and no meal service. Well, two wings anyway.

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