Friday, April 03, 2009

Ghost Routers In The Sky

Look! Up in the Air! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Wi-Fi.

The age of the flying hotspot is upon us. After some tentative starts, it now looks like the entire air fleet is embracing wireless Internet service for its customers. American Airlines recently announced it is joining the fray by installing WiFi access on more than 300 planes. Delta, Northwest and Virgin already have similar services in the works.

You knew it had to be this way eventually. We're an addictive nation. We may be shunning old vices like tobacco, trans fats, gas guzzling SUVs and even plastic bags. But electronic fixes are the new high. No teenager would be caught cell-less. No adult is going to be forced to take more than short trips without logging on to the Internet. The hotel industry caught on to this insatiable demand a decade ago. Restaurants caught on this decade.

Now it's time for the airlines. We may not need in-flight meals or drinks or movies or pillows. We don't care if we're crammed in like lobsters headed to that final sauna. You can make us sit in those cramped little seats for three hours before we take off. But there better be Internet service, or else.

The airlines are no fools. They're not going to be giving away WiFi access, after all. Have that $10 bill ready for the short hops. More for longer flights. American is going to offer a lower cost service for smartphones and PDAs, so the text addicted can keep on tweetin'. But don't get the idea you can flap your yap on a cell phone. You can only let your fingers do the talking. Quiet clicking will be acceptable to your fellow travelers, unlike some buffoon talking much too loudly and sharing way too much personal information.

There are two competing systems for in-flight Internet service. One uses cellular towers along the flight path. The other uses satellites. Aircell's Gogo system is cellular based, but you don't pick up the signal directly from the cell towers. Instead, the airplane receives the transmissions and feeds an onboard WiFi hotspot supporting 802.11 a/b/g wireless communications. That makes it compatible with everything but non-WiFi enabled cell phones.

Boeing's Connexion pioneered the use of satellite to plane links to provide service over water where there are long stretches of the briny deep with no land and no cellular towers. Service was discontinued in 2006 due to lack of sufficient demand.

A mere three years later, the demand has materialized. Perhaps it's due to our ever more connected world where both our business and personal lives require near-constant connection with the Internet. Perhaps air travel has finally become miserable enough that only our only escape is down the online rabbit hole into an alternate reality. But so many airlines are busily testing and deploying wireless routers on their planes that it looks like WiFi in the air is here to stay.

The big question is how long airlines will be able to collect those access fees for the same broadband service that hotels and restaurants are giving away free. We'll know the answer when people start picking their flights based on who is going to give them free WiFi.

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