Thursday, June 19, 2008

In-flight Internet access: because we're not connected enough

Crotchety old Walter Mossberg (and I mean that in a good way) got to try out the new in-flight Internet access offered on some airlines.

The Gogo service will cost a flat fee of $12.95 for flights of three hours or longer, and $9.95 for shorter trips... The service operates at respectable, if not blazing, speeds -- similar to what you'd get on a cellular broadband service or a slow home DSL line. On my test flight, download speeds varied from 266 kilobits per second to about 1.4 megabits per second, with the most typical speeds hovering between 500 and 600 kbps. Upload speeds were between 250 and 300 kbps. I found that most of the tasks I tested, except for streaming video, felt smooth and normal.

Speeds could degrade on a large plane with scores of people online simultaneously. But Aircell claims it has the technology to make my experience representative for anyone doing common tasks, such as Web surfing and email. During my test flight, eight laptops and six Wi-Fi-enabled smart phones were using the system simultaneously. All registered decent speeds, except for a couple of minutes when the plane was crossing between the zones controlled by the company's ground-based towers.

Aircell gets Internet access to the planes through a network of 92 towers scattered across North America. These essentially are cellphone towers, carrying a high-speed cellphone data signal, except that the Aircell antennas point up, into the sky. A receiver on the underside of the aircraft picks up the signal, which is then distributed through the plane via Wi-Fi.

It's only available in the U.S. (for the time being).

And as for using Skype or otherwise bypassing the brutally expensive Airphones? Gogo reportedly blocks all voice services, so you'll have to stick with IM and email.

Hat tip: Gretawire

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