Wi-Fi available on 1 in 3 U.S. planes

No longer rare, the service is gradually being added on more passenger jets, but VoIP a no-no

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Aircell's Steenstrup wouldn't discuss customer satisfaction with the current Gogo pricing or how many more planes will add the service in the next year. However, he said Aircell is "thrilled with our usage rates" and noted that 61% of Gogo users have used the service again within three months.

Business travelers might find wireless service on long flights to be so valuable -- for, say, answering e-mails or connecting to a company VPN -- that they're willing to pay Gogo's prices, Gold noted. "Business types with a pressing need will use it, but then they can expense it," he said. For casual users, on the other hand, "I think... the Wi-Fi price is still a bit too high," he said.

Gold said that Aircell could be setting its prices so high in an attempt to limit the number of passengers who use its service on a single plane, since network performance declines as the number of people who log on increases. "If you had 50 users on a plane, I'll bet it would be pretty slow," he said. "If they lower the price, you'll get lots more users, but that would increase the loading problem."

In coming years, Gold predicted, airlines might make Wi-Fi a free service in first class but charge passengers for it in the economy cabin, just as they do now with food and beverage service.

Wi-Fi has grown more common on U.S. flights even though the airlines have restricted passengers from using voice over Wi-Fi (or video chat) systems. Some airlines have said they don't believe passengers want to hear their fellow travelers engage in phone conversations during flights, although airlines in some other countries allow video chat.

Aircell has "multiple protocols and practices in place" to prevent the use of voice-over-IP systems, said a company spokeswoman. However, she acknowledged that it's "extremely difficult to stop every instance of VoIP." A recent New York Times article described a Skype call that took place on a Virgin America flight, and this reporter conducted a short video chat on a Virgin flight last December.

Even so, "Aircell is monitoring and working constantly to enforce these [airlines' no-VoIP] policies," the spokeswoman said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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