Wi-Fi, Though Not VoIP, Completely at Home in the Air

Carl Weinschenk

The writer of this post at GIzmodo doesn't seem to have made much of an effort to check the veracity of this vignette he picked up at Evan's Blog. The story is that a commercial plane waiting to take off at Newark Airport when the captain asked if there was a passenger with a laptop and connectivity on board. Bad weather was delaying things. The plane was 50th in line, which essentially means that passengers were in for an extended stay in the land of Tony Soprano.


The crew's idea was to find a route that skirted the storm and suggest it to air traffic controllers. The person who submitted the anecdote said that the type of plane -- a Boeing 757-500 -- isn't equipped to perform such tasks, hence the call for passengers for help. The blogger said a new route indeed was used, though he wasn't sure it was the one he helped find.


The story-whether true or apocryphal-shows how common Wi-Fi has become in the air (or, in this case, on the tarmac). The latest news is that Southwest Airlines is installing gear from vendor Row 44 beginning in the first quarter of 2010. The InformationWeek story says that the gear has been tested on four Southwest craft since February. It has been used with iPhones, laptops and other smartphones, the story says.


There are four major suppliers of these services, according to this helpful DVICE chart, which provides the basic facts and a set of pros and cons on each. An interesting tidbit from the story is that VoIP isn't expressly forbidden by the government. Rather, U.S. airlines shy away from allowing it simply because they fear a backlash from those sitting next to folks who yak nonstop on long flights. VoIP on planes is allowed in several parts of the world, the story says.


As the DVICE chart suggests, all the services are not created equal. Network World's Larry Chaffin has a more technical take, though he doesn't identify the airline or service he recently used and upon which the critique is based. He was more or less satisfied. He offer suggestions, such as adding acceleration technology and quality of service (QoS) controls, that he said could improve the all-around experience.


Aviation Week suggests that the most difficult thing about Wi-Fi on planes is getting people to use it. So much free service is available on the terra firma that passengers aren't lining up to pay to do the same thing in the air. It says they are not necessarily concerned that providing connectivity to a coffee shop that is presumably on the ground and not moving is far less involved that serving an airplane thousands of feet in the air traveling at several hundred miles per hour.

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