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Coming to an Airplane Near You: In-Flight Internet

This week, American became the first major U.S. airline to offer travelers broadband Internet access while in flight.

It's been a long time coming. As detailed in a recent Washington Post article, Boeing's attempt to make in-flight Wi-Fi ubiquitous, Connexion, was a failure of epic proportions. "(A)s Connexion proved, satellite Internet is costly to install and expensive to operate, and access speeds are pokey."

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But Aircell, which provides American's Internet service, apparently is poised to succeed where Boeing failed. The service, called Gogo, is up and running on American's B767 flights on the following routes: New York-San Francisco, New York-Los Angeles, and New York-Miami. The price: $12.95 for access throughout the flight. And the access speeds, according to American, are "similar to wireless mobile broadband services on the ground."

American plans to expand Gogo. And with both Delta and Virgin America set to offer Gogo service in future, in-flight broadband seems poised to become commonplace in the next year or so as other carriers outfit their jets with in-flight Internet access.

Assuming other airlines use Gogo or a similar service, here's what travelers will need in order to connect to the World Wide Web at 36,000 feet, and what they can expect when they do.

Hardware
According to American, flyers on Gogo-equipped aircraft can access the Internet with any "Wi-Fi-enabled personal devices such as laptops, smartphones, and PDAs."

There's also the question of available electrical outlets. American's B767s, the only aircraft currently featuring Gogo service, have one power port for each first- and business-class seat. But in coach, power is available only in "selected rows." That means coach passengers will have to bring fully charged batteries, and possibly an extra battery as well, if they want to use Gogo on a cross-country flight. Otherwise, they should be prepared to dive into the scrum of flyers competing for one of the few coach outlets.

Software
Travelers' browsers, email clients, IM clients, and VPN access software will operate just as they would when connecting through normal Internet access providers.

There are limitations, especially in the area of voice communications. "Cell phone and Voice Over IP (Internet Protocol) services will not be usable and are against American Airlines policy." In other words, don't expect to use Skype to make VOIP calls using Gogo.

Connecting
PC Magazine reports that Aircell has created an "Internet backhaul... from the plane to towers on the ground to create an air-to-ground (ATG) connection." With three antennas mounted inside, each aircraft becomes a Wi-Fi hotspot.

To get online, flyers proceed just as they would when logging on from a hotel room. "Once the aircraft has reached 10,000 feet, users can simply turn on their Wi-Fi enabled devices such as laptops, smartphones and PDAs, open their browsers and be directed to the Gogo portal page where they sign up and begin surfing."

While the discussion tends to focus on hardware and software, not all the issues are technical in nature. As coach-class flyers know all too well, if the passenger in the seat ahead decides to recline his seatback, it can be impossible to view their laptop's screen.

One can easily imagine the following exchange between a would-be Internet surfer and a would-be napper:

Laptop user: "Sir, I paid $12.95 to use my laptop to connect to the Internet. But I can't do so with your seatback in my face."

Recliner: "I paid $562.19 for my ticket, which entitles me to as much comfort as I can get from this seat. I plan to remain in full recline until the flight attendant announces we're on final descent."

To avoid such confrontations, it may become common practice to check in advance whether the passenger in front of you plans to recline his seat. If he does, paying $12.95 for Internet access becomes a Nono rather than a Gogo.

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