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WiFi in the Sky
August 5, 2008
Thomas Mennecke
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Being a passenger on a Boeing 757 tends to be a dichotomy of technologies. There are a hundred or so passengers flying in a state of the art aircraft, stuffed together with the latest WiFi electronics that have suddenly become paperweights. Sitting on a 4 hour flight with no connectivity suddenly becomes reminiscent of 2003. How terrible.

The loss of productivity during those long flights could be staggering. Imagine going 4 hours without checking office emails, instant messages, or playing World of Warcraft. It's time lost, and there's no getting it back.

Yet to the relief of many, this is about to change. Delta Airlines, one of the few US carriers who remain on solid financial footing, announced today the arrival of WiFi service on all domestic routes. The carrier has paired with Aircell, a service provider who specializes in ground to air communications. In essence, each aircraft will become a WiFi hot spot, allowing passengers to turn those bricks into something useful again.

"Gogo (name of the hot spot) will be offered initially on Delta’s fleet of 133 MD88/90 aircraft and will rapidly expand to the remaining domestic fleet of more than 200 Boeing 737, 757 and 767-300 aircraft throughout the first half of 2009," Delta announced. "The airline expects to have more than 330 aircraft complete by summer 2009."

With fuel prices placing the crunch on the airline industry's budget, don't expect a free service. However, the proposed rates aren't terrible either. According to Delta, WiFi access will cost "$9.95 on flights of three hours or less, and $12.95 on flights of more than three hours."

Considering the mind numbing experience of a lengthy flight, $12.95 is likely within the budget of most travelers. But the costs definitely add up. Unless you're flying Jet Blue, who provides free WiFi at their terminals, airport WiFi can be a bit pricey. In addition to all other expenses, travelers can expect to pay over $20.00 for internet access after all is said and done.

But consider the benefits of air carrier WiFi. As most know, cell phone usage is prohibited in flight - not that a signal at 31,000 feet is possible anyway. The FCC and FAA both have regulations prohibiting their use, the motivation of which is generated by the concern that the phone’s radio transmitter might cause a hazard to the plane’s sensitive electronic equipment. The realistic impact that a cell phone has is heavily debated, and further studies have led to a relaxation of this once universal policy by foreign carriers.

The arrival of WiFI service on US domestic flights may have a preemptive strike against any change to the cell phone rule. Skype and IM services regularly accommodate telephony technology, which allows Internet users to make and receive calls just like a phone. Skype in particular has become a popular VoIP (Voice over IP) medium, and users can buy USB devices that function and look just like a phone.

The usherance of WiFi technology in the air will have lasting impact, not only on the productivity of the work/play force, but kicking the cell phone ban into obsolescence.

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Technology News :: Other

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