Attention, laptop-toting U.S. airline passengers! You are either about to become much more productive and happy, or to lose one of your last refuges from the digital deluge that afflicts your life.
Beginning this summer, as soon as next month, wireless Internet access will arrive in the passenger cabins of some commercial U.S. airliners.
On these Internet-equipped planes, any passenger with a Wi-Fi enabled laptop — or a cellphone with Wi-Fi — will be able to do almost everything he or she could do online at home or at the office. That includes surfing the Web, using email, having instant-messenger text chats, downloading and uploading files, and streaming video and audio.
In fact, I did all these things a few days ago on a test flight using the new system, called Gogo. During the flight from San Francisco to Denver, on a small test jet, I could operate online as if I were sitting at my desk, or in a Starbucks. I used Dell (DELL) and Apple (AAPL) laptops, a BlackBerry (RIMM), a Windows Mobile phone and an iPhone to perform all the most common online tasks, while soaring over majestic mountains and glorious national parks.
I sent and received emails on Microsoft (MSFT) Outlook and Apple Mail, including messages with hefty attachments. I conducted IM chats on AOL (TWX) Instant Messenger and Google (GOOG) Talk. Using all the major Web browsers, I called up dozens of Web sites, and watched video clips on Hulu and YouTube. I downloaded photos, songs, PDF files and Microsoft Office documents. I used all the Internet functions on the iPhone, and on the Wi-Fi-equipped BlackBerry and Windows Mobile phone.
One important caveat: Gogo is a data-only system. It doesn’t allow phone calls and will block all services that allow voice conversations to be made over the Internet.
Gogo will launch on three American Airlines (AMR) routes, likely in July. The first planes to use it will be American’s 15 Boeing 767s flying between New York and Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. Later in the year, Gogo will be available on all of Virgin America’s small number of routes, and possibly additional American routes, if the first deployment works well. It’s supplied to the airlines by a Denver-based company called Aircell, which says it is in negotiations to offer the Gogo service on several other major U.S. airlines by next year.
The Gogo service will cost a flat fee of $12.95 for flights of three hours or longer, and $9.95 for shorter trips. You log into Gogo as you would any commercial Internet service, registering on a special Web page. Aircell plans to allow advance sign-up, so you’d only have to enter an ID and password on the plane. No add-on software, hardware or cables are required.
A few Web functions will be offered free from Gogo, including access to the American Airlines Web site, to Frommer’s online travel guides and to a limited selection of articles from The Wall Street Journal.
Gogo isn’t the first in-plane Internet service. A few years ago, Lufthansa (LHA.MU) offered a satellite-based service from Boeing (BA), mainly on over-ocean flights, but it was canceled.
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.
The companies say Gogo is safe and won’t interfere with the plane’s operation. It is government-approved, and pilots can shut the system off should they deem it necessary.
Gogo has some limitations. The service plans to allocate its capacity so that low-bandwidth activities like Web surfing and email take priority over high-bandwidth ones like streaming video. That means you may find video to be slow and halting.
And Gogo is a North American, land-based service only. It won’t work over the oceans and, for now, it won’t work on other continents.
But for U.S. travelers who want to stay connected in the air, Gogo does the job.