More Delusion About The Popularity Of In-Flight Net Access

from the uh-yeah dept

There are plenty of reasons to dislike the experience of commercial flying -- like poor service from airlines, and delays from technical glitches and systemic failures. But a Computerworld columnist is all hot and bothered because people can't get online or use cell phones while they're on planes. Frankly, the piece is so bizarre that it would make more sense as a badly written parody. It claims "Providing low-cost WiFi access in-flight is perfectly doable. In fact, an extremely good service was painstakingly rolled out, then later killed because of a lack of interest and support from the airlines and the government." This isn't strictly true: Boeing shut down its Connexion service because it didn't attract very many users. People were reluctant to pay $30 per flight for WiFi; this made airlines hesitant to spend the $500,000 per plane to equip them with the system. Still, the writer claims that US airlines "failed everyone" -- despite evidence that the real demand for in-flight internet access is nowhere near as great as many people assume.

But things take an even more bizarre turn when the writer turns his rant towards the government ban on cell phones on planes. He focuses on the FAA's ban, which is in place for safety reasons, ignoring the FCC's ban, which is based on the contention that devices on planes could interfere with ground networks. He says that the FAA ban, purportedly on safety grounds, merely exists so that planes' avionics and other equipment don't have to be shielded from interference. His demand is that the ban be lifted, and airlines forced to install shielding -- then that cell phones be banned again, but this time because they'd be annoying to many passengers. That seems rather pointless, but his claim that the current ban is helping terrorists makes it really hard to take the guy seriously: "And terrorists love the ban, because it's another potential way to crash airplanes. The cell phone ban as a substitute for shielding is clearly unacceptable. It's a trivial task for terrorists to look up public information about which phones cause the most interference, then bring dozens of them onboard and turn them on during crucial phases of flight, such as takeoff." Um, yeah. The fact remains that the real demand for in-flight internet service hasn't lived up to the expectations. Regardless of how many people say they'd use such services, there hasn't been enough actual use to sustain their operations. It remains expensive to equip planes with the necessary equipment to offer in-flight net access; given the way things are going at many US airlines, the majority of customers would probably rather see that money spent on things that would help get them and their luggage to their destination on time.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    TX CHL Instructor (profile), Jul 16th, 2007 @ 4:23pm

    Withdrawal?

    One of the VERY few pleasures left in air travel is getting away from annoying cellphone users. And, I can manage to spend a few hours away from the Internet. I have other things I can do on my laptop if I so choose.

    --
    Concealed Handgun License Training in Plano, TX

     

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  2.  
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    Joe, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 4:33pm

    In-Flight Net Access

    I agree that the Computerworld writer is a little over the top, but pervasive and ubiquitousness computing is the future. Eventually (maybe years from now, maybe sooner), everyone will have to get with the program or be left behind. Even airlines. Being disconnected will be simply unacceptable. Why? Just because. That is Reality 101.

     

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  3.  
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    Some Guy, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 4:52pm

    I can guarantee you that flight avionics is shielded. Period. The guy has no idea what he is talking about.

    Just what we all need some idiot next to you yammering on to a relative about how the flight is boring or he is hungover...better yet, he can do it on his Skype phone if he had wifi. I could see internet access as an advantage for extremely long international flights, but I must say I prefer the (relative) quiet we have right now.

     

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  4.  
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    GoblinJuice, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 5:02pm

    I don't wanna always be connected. :(

    Since I can't stop myself - what with me having no self-control and all, I look forward to those times when it's out of my control.

     

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  5.  
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    Bob, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 5:06pm

    your telling me

    Your telling me, that you wouldnt pay $10 for 3 hours of high speed internet for gaming, web browsing, email checking, hacking the FAA mainframe...

     

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  6.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 5:17pm

    I've said it before...

    and I'll say it again. If my pilot can't fly the plane with a little interference well enough not to crash, then I don't want to be on that plane.

    Don't cell phones run on 2.4GHz? Doesn't wifi run on 2.4GHz? I don't know, maybe I'm wrong.

    this is just another one of the things on the Internet that need to be taken with a grain of salt. This guy is obviously misinformed, or he is just really pissed that he got yelled at by a flight attendant.

    The FCC bans cell phones because there are way to many phones coming out too often to test them all, so they ban them all so no one phone that could interfere douse. Don't say that's taking away rights for a small possibility of injury, they do it all the time. Smoking for example. don't want to take any risks.

    To my point, The FCC cannot, and should not, ban cell phones because they are annoying.

     

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  7.  
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    dennis purvis, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 5:18pm

    Net access "delusion"

    i don't know what your issue is with the computerworld columnist -- outside of what seems a bad case of professional jealousy. the guy's making a valid point and it's hardly the illogical hash you suggest. a little less bile and a little more modesty on your part would be appropriate

     

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  8.  
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    James Hinkley, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 6:23pm

    @Chronno S. Tigger

    This has nothing to do with flying skills. If your approach ILS indication is erroneous and shows a too low glidepath because someone forgot to turn off his mobile phone on the airplane, then the pilot can be the best of the world and he will still fly the airplane into the ground, especially after a later stage of the approach when all the glideslope check has already been performed and you're waiting for the decision altitude.

    Anyway, somehow the author is not very well informed because Emirates are already testing wifi internet connections on selected flights for several months. There is no doubt that Internet connection and later also phone calls will be available during most flights. It takes time to get things rolling but it will come.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 6:37pm

    Re: I've said it before...

    "Don't cell phones run on 2.4GHz?"

    Nope. There are several different frequency bands allocated to cell phones, the GSM bands are in the vicinity of 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1.8 GHz, and 1.9 GHz. Some "cordless" phones (land-line connection, limited range) do run in the 2.4 GHz band (others use the 900 MHz and/or 5.8 GHz bands).

    "Doesn't wifi run on 2.4GHz?"
    Yes, at least if by wifi you mean 802.11b, 802.11g, or 802.11n. 802.11a uses the 5.8 GHz band; some proprietary wireless networking systems (e.g., Clearwire) use other frequency bands.

     

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  10.  
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    Jet Business, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 8:11pm

    I agree that this guy is an idiot, but honestly, if the technology is there to make it happen, then why should the government BAN it?

    The industry will decide whats good and bad based on the ability to generate revenue from it vs. customer dissatisfaction. Can we use phones and network access on planes with disrupting avionics? Yes. Planes will have to be modified and the cost will be great. Just keep the government out of the decision and let the Aircraft operators decide. Maybe a small business owns a personal jet and they want to have the ability to use those devices for the meetings and communication while flying from city to city. The government shouldn't ban their use from everyone.

     

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  11.  
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    Overcast, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 8:45pm

    Yeah, $30 per flight is far too much. I can always find a doc to work on, read a book, or just sleep.

    $10.00... dunno, I mean - seriously is it worth even a couple hours?

    Last time I was waiting on a delayed flight, I could either spend 10.00 for an hour of Net access at the airport... or.. well, I managed to find a bar :)

     

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  12.  
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    john, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 9:24pm

    try this for an offer

    how about $7.99 for the whole flight for your very own guaranteed 100 Kbps.

    It's coming soon from my company, Row 44; first in the USA, then internationally. Delivered by the world's largest provideer of satellite broadband connectivity.

     

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  13.  
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    tek'a, Jul 16th, 2007 @ 11:49pm

    gloom

    have a hard time, personally, believing the horror stories about cellphones. I spent an entire flight (jersey to dfw) with my cellphone On.. and there was no plane crashing in screaming flames. I had left the blasted thing in my bag, thought I had turned it off and noticed it was on when I was putting away a book while the plane was taxi-ing to the gate.

    dont beleive Too much hysteria about planes crashing. dunno about groundside interference though.

     

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  14.  
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    Team Tutorials, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 5:17am

    When in doubt, blame the terrorists! o(or Canada)

     

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  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 5:57am

    Re: gloom

    it's the idea if *everyone* had their cell phones turned on. one cell phone will obviously not make a difference or else they'd be much stricter about searching bags to make sure their are no cell phones turned on. i know i had to show my cell phone at the game, turn it on to show it was a real phone and also turn it off in front of them to show it was off. however, thats probably more to do with 'security' then with just wanting to see the phone turned off.

     

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  16.  
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    Lisa C. Clark, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 6:31am

    In-Flight Net Access

    I'd like to offer another perspective on the importance of this topic.

    As a former tech Road Warrior who's spent loads of hours in red carpet clubs, I've watched the dynamics of travelers in airports and public places.

    When these clubs have long banks of outleted tables/cubbies set up just for laptop user, when looking over a sea of seats some large percentage of those waiting are on their laptops, when humans can be found clustering/standing/sitting/crouching around wherever there's an available electrical outlet in terminals or restaurants, when the last thing one sees before a plane pulls away from its gate is a bevy of people all telling their cell phone callers that they have to hang up now -- power has been redefined as S/He Who Has Access.

    With respect, I have to disagree with the author about the level of demand for such a service. In an era of business and life being live 24/7/375 planet-wide, many folks feel they can not afford to "go dark" for the many hours they spend on long-haul flights and, I believe, have come to expect in-flight net access as a part of any airline's value proposition to stay current. Didn't I read recently that JetBlue is pursuing it? GREAT strategic move.

    Lisa

     

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  17.  
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    Mike G, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 6:51am

    I'm OK with it.

    It's no surpise that Boeing killed their plans. $500,000 per plane is a huge investment when the industry is treading water financially. The window for use (above 10,000 feet) on most flights would make your useful "online" time even shorter. It wouldn't attract me at $10.

    As a former road warrior, I found doing anything with your computer on a plane was a crap shoot anyway. If the 300 pound football player in front of you wants to recline for a nap, you won't be doing much on your computer anyway. Bring a book or a stack of magazines.

    As for cell phones: I'm OK with them being "banned" while during flight. The reason? I don't want to hear the high powered obnoxious software salesman go through his contacts trying to make the most of his time:

    "Hey Bobby!, it's Brad....yeah...I'm on a flight to Chicago now..."

    "Hey Johnny, it's Brad...yeah...I'm on a flight to Chicago now..."

    "Hey Bill...

    You get the idea. This happens while parked at the gate already. I think most passengers would like to avoid 3 hours of this in the air.

    An airplane is a small place packed with a lot of people. It's a wonder more riots don't break out.

     

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  18.  
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    Nasty Old Geezer, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 7:19am

    Talking or non-talking section?

    Second hand talk is as toxic to my spirit as second hand smoke is to my body.

    The day the airlines allow cell phones and/or VOIP from airplanes is the last day I ever use an airplae for travel.

    No, one phone is not going to crash an airplane or destroy the avionics. Maybe ten won't either. I don't know the radiated power of the phones -- but 100 or 200 all going at once may very well be able to disrupt aircraft electronics. Even a brief bit of noise during taxi could put the plane no the wrong runway or taxiway, if the pilot does not hear the control tower.

    There are many reasons to keep the ban in place, and few reasons to lift it. At least give me the option of a non-talking section, with a nice thick soundproof bulkhead to isolate the yakkers.

     

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  19.  
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    Matt Bennett, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 7:26am

    Their is no real evidence that cell phones cause malfunctions on planes. It's all very circumstantial and frankly urban-legendish. But the FAA are uber-cautious bastards (usually a good thing) and so the ban stays, somewhat nonsensically.

     

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  20.  
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    BTR1701, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 7:37am

    Cell Phone Use - Doesn't Make Sense

    One thing I don't get regarding the whole when-you-can-use-electronics-on-a-plane issue is what happens when you land. The moment the wheels touch down and the plane starts its interminable taxi to the gate, the flight attendant comes on and tells everyone that they are now free to use their cell phones-- but that all other electronics must be kept off.

    Why?

    If it's safety, then why can the passengers use cell phones at that point-- which have the most potential of interfering with the plane-- as opposed to something like an iPod which has virtually zero chance of causing anyone any problems.

    I can just never figure out why they'd care if you popped your iPod back on while the plane taxis but have no problem with dozens of passengers firing up their cell phones.

     

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  21.  
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    BTR1701, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 8:00am

    Re: Talking or non-talking section?

    > At least give me the option of a
    > non-talking section, with a nice
    > thick soundproof bulkhead to isolate
    > the yakkers.

    Amtrak already does this very thing on the Acela trains that run between DC and NYC (and maybe other trains do, too, I don't know). There are "quiet cars" for people who don't want to listen to cell phones or even other passengers talking to each other.

     

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  22.  
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    Lemings, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 8:59am

    It's astonishing how one false Idea can be interpreten and run with in nearly every single comment.
    The ban on cell phones has nothing to do with arcraft avionics. All the flight electronics in any moder plane are heavily shielded.

    Ask yourselves this. What happens when you go to higher ground with your cell phone?

    You get a better signal don't you. That is because you have a better line of sight signal path to the tower. Under normal operation you will only ever have line of sight to a single tower. Two if moving between cells. Three at best on flat terrain.

    No lets get up even higher. You see where I'm going? Now I'm not going to do the math but when you look out the windows at 30,000 feet you can visibly see across an entire state. How many cell towers is that? Which one to connect to? If you place a call it has the potential to jam your current frequency on all those towers. making it unusable for other customers.

    Using cell phones on airplanes at altitude has the potential to cause major problems on ther ground, hence the ban.

    The technology to reject signals not coming from the avionics has been around for a long time. It's called signal rejection (imagine that) Your tv has it, just to make the picture a tiny bit clearer.

    Morever, it has been proven that even with amplified cellular signals show no deflection in any of the the navigational equipment.
    Nothing to do with glide slope either. Mr. James Hinkly up there is not a pilot. Neither am I. but I do know that in the event of ILS indicator failure upon landing, two things would happen. 1. Tower would inform you radar says you are too low. 2. The landing slope indicator lights on the runway, which have no mechanical or electronic components, would be red. That means your are too low. Not a tough thing to rely on. esier than looking at instuments.

    To sum up. No interference on plane.
    Screws up cell networks on ground.
    Who cares about net access on plane? Getta life.

     

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  23.  
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    Mike Elgan, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 1:24pm

    Author response

    Hi, Carlo. Thank you for your readership, and for commenting on my Computerworld.com piece. I have a few comments for you:


    ***** Frankly, the piece is so bizarre that it would make more sense as a badly written parody. *****

    I'm an executive-platinum level frequent flier and a pilot, and like many others, I use the Internet heavily in my work. I'm fulfilling my role as a consumer advocate, and informing the airline industry and two government agencies what I believe the flying public wants them to do:

    1. Give us affordable Wi-Fi
    2. Shield aircraft avionics
    3. Ban cell phones

    This is perfectly reasonable, and I stand behind my belief that this is what the public wants. Sure, a lot of people don't mind unplugging during flights, but surely they wouldn't deny access to others (it's not annoying like cell phone calls are).

    It's fun to criticize -- heck, I pretty much do that for a living -- but you're overplaying your hand and eroding your own credibility by calling my perfectly reasonable piece "bizarre." You disagree with some of my points? Fine. Bizarre? Obviously not. Anyone can see that.


    ***** Boeing shut down its Connexion service because it didn't attract very many users. People were reluctant to pay $30 per flight for WiFi; this made airlines hesitant to spend the $500,000 per plane to equip them with the system. *****
    You failed to mention the next bit in my column about Jetblue, which is soon to roll out very cheap or free Wi-Fi, advertiser supported.

    I'm slamming the airlines for a lack of creativity, and expressing my belief that a critical mass of fliers really want this. I'm also suggesting that they didn't really try to make this happen.

    Is that delusional? Jetblue doesn't think so.

    Another factor I didn't mention in my column, nor you in your blog post, is that the Connexion service was shelved in the immediate aftermath of 911 when airlines were hurting. The move was less about responding to a lack of demand, and more about desperate, short-term cost-cutting.


    ***** He focuses on the FAA's ban, which is in place for safety reasons, ignoring the FCC's ban, which is based on the contention that devices on planes could interfere with ground networks. He says that the FAA ban, purportedly on safety grounds, merely exists so that planes' avionics and other equipment don't have to be shielded from interference. *****

    I've written on this topic many times before, and each time I do, very knowledgeable people -- some in the FAA -- send me e-mail. Half of them say that gadgets and cell phones absolutely do not cause interference, and the other half say they absolutely do. Airline pilots have written to me and told me they have heard cell phones ringing in their headsets.

    Also: I linked to these two articles, which you failed to mention:
    http://www.issues.org/19.2/strauss.htm
    http://www.popularaviation.com/ListNewsArticleDtl.asp?id=8 0

    Anecdotal evidence supporting both sides is irrelevant, however. It's a fact that the FAA supports the FCC's ban because of potential interference to avionics. Here is the FAA's exact wording on that (from Advisory Circular Number 91-21.1B [ http://tinyurl.com/yr9s5m ]):

    "The FAA supports this airborne restriction for other reasons of potential interference to aircraft systems and equipment."

    Regarding the FCC's reason for it's ban, I've written on that before and I linked to that column in the article, which, again, you fail to mention.


    ***** His demand is that the ban be lifted, and airlines forced to install shielding -- then that cell phones be banned again, but this time because they'd be annoying to many passengers. That seems rather pointless, but his claim that the current ban is helping terrorists makes it really hard to take the guy seriously *****

    It's not pointless. The current ban is akin to the government banning cell phones in movie theaters because they're a fire hazard. They are and should be banned not by the federal government, but by the movie theater and for reasons of customer satisfaction. Is that so bizarre?

    I'm saying, fix the airplanes so cell phones can't interfere with avionics, but continue to ban cell phones, because we passengers don't want people annoying us with their loud voices. Is that unreasonable?

    Again, the FAA says cell phones and other gadgets can interfere with aircraft systems and equipment. That fact plus the knowledge that terrorists are looking for ways to crash airplanes doesn't make me happy as a passenger. I believe (and am suggesting in my column that many passengers believe) that it's the FAA's responsibility to make sure that devices allowed on board by the hundreds can't crash the airplanes. Find out exactly how consumer electronics might cause “interference to aircraft systems and equipment” and require modifications to the aircraft to remove this hazard. Is that bizarre?

    Again, thank you for contributing to this conversation.

    Best,

    Mike Elgan

     

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  24.  
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    Long, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 1:35pm

    How about some wall sockets first?

    Internet on a flight especially international flights should draw a lot of consumer interest but there is one major problem. Where do you plug your laptop power cable in on the long flight? I bought one of those air/car power adapters for my trip overseas only to find out that the carrier I used did not have any of the special plugs. Even when I moved up to business class there weren't any. If you give people wireless access, you first need to give them power to charge their devices too.

     

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  25.  
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    None, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 4:26pm

    Why are cell phones really banned on airplanes?

    Today's cell phone systems assume that handsets can "see" a couple of cells at a time and move at a relatively slow rate (i.e. no faster than highway speeds). Take that same cell phone and have it talk to _many_ base stations while moving at 500mph, and the signaling channels would overload. Can you use one in a plane? Clearly. Would it scale to have tens of thousands of folks on a cell phone in airplanes? No. Besides, I really don't need to hear the guy next to me talk to his whore one minute and his wife the next (that just happened, no kidding).

     

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  26.  
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    BTR1701, Jul 17th, 2007 @ 8:26pm

    Re: Cells on the Ground

    > Using cell phones on airplanes at altitude
    > has the potential to cause major problems
    > on ther ground, hence the ban.

    If that's the case, then what about all the private planes in use that don't have flight crews to enforce the rules? You'd think people on everything from private jets to Cessnas to helicopters would be using them and jamming cell towers all the time.

    Hell, even being in a skyscraper could cause this problem if what you say is true. I would imagine you'd have direct line of sight to dozens of cell towers (if not more) from the top of the Sears Tower.

     

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  27.  
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    Enrico Suarve, Jul 18th, 2007 @ 5:20am

    Re: Author response

    "Sure, a lot of people don't mind unplugging during flights, but surely they wouldn't deny access to others (it's not annoying like cell phone calls are)."

    Spoken like a man who's never been elbowed constantly by some "Road Warrior" arse sat next to him

    "Road Warrior" - I love that term, to me it always conjures up images of some sales prat dressed up like Mad Max, trying to beat off Tina Turners minions with a USB mouse. In IT Support terms "Road Warrior" usually actually means some self important prick that 1st line guys hate taking calls from, as every problem not immediately fixable by remote triggers an instant whinge

    [and breath] ;0)

    Anyway as a corporate minion who flies all the time (like a road warrior but subtly different) the last thing I want is Wi-fi in the air or mobiles on planes.

    As a person who is pig sick of the all the terror bollocks flying around, I don't appreciate the scaremongering "terrorists could turn on their phones on a plane" unresearched, sensationalist, ‘be afraid’ crap, reference to which instantly invalidates most of your other arguments in my book

     

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  28.  
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    GoblinJuice, Jul 18th, 2007 @ 2:17pm

    Re:

    w00t! Beer! =D

     

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  29.  
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    Jesse, Jul 19th, 2007 @ 2:31pm

    $30 is NOT low cost

    $30/flight is hardly "low cost." I wouldn't pay more than $5 at most for Internet access on a 3-hour flight, but I would consistently pay $5. I already balk at $10 a night in hotel rooms (where it should be FREE).

    - Jesse

     

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