Joining the Wi-Fi high club

in-flight_with_Apple_iPadAdmit it, we’ve all dreamed of doing it. Getting on a plane, and when it’s high above the clouds, taking out your favourite touchable strokeable friend, and well, spending some quality time.

Yes, of course, I’m talking about using our phones and tablets to get online, while sitting at 30,000 feet.

Joining the Wi-Fi high club, you might say.

This could be a reality sooner than you might think, according to a story by the BBC this week. According to the article, fast Wi-Fi, speedy enough to stream video content from the likes of Netflix and the BBC iPlayer, could be in place on flights as soon as 2014.

The crucial step, is that the British regulator Ofcom, has begun a consultation process to authorise the use of Earth Stations on Mobile Platforms (ESOMPs), enabling their use in British air space. ESOMPs are devices mounted on moving vehicles such as planes, trains or indeed, automobiles, that communicate with satellites, bringing internet connectivity to where there previously was none.

Of course it’s not just the UK’s Ofcom that is doing this. All countries need to allow use of ESOMPs in their air space, or you’d have the absurd situation that you could use the internet when flying over one country, but have to turn it off while you fly over another. The BBC reports states that France, Germany and Luxembourg, are working on their regulations permitting this, while the US regulator, the FCC, has already approved their use.

Good news then for travellers in the not too distance future, though it does through up a number of issues.

Firstly, there’s the issue of performance. Currently in-flight connectivity options, where they are available, are renowned for being very slow, making them suitable only for sending an emergency email.

The other limitation is price, which, inevitably tend to be ‘sky high’. If it’s too expensive to use, it’s availability will just frustrate or bankrupt travellers. Probably both. One hopes that if it does become widespread, economies of scale, and increasing customer expectation will ensure prices lower rapidly.

Then there are issues of social etiquette. In May 2012 I wrote about the founder of VoIP app Viber using the app he created to talk via the in-flight Wi-Fi that was available (see above) on the flight. However, the airline attendants believed that data could only be used for browsing the internet rather than making voice calls, took exception to his call, and when he protested, arranged for police to meet him after the airport landed. Daft, but true. No charges were brought.

There’s needs to be some clarification and education therefore, for both staff and consumers, on what is and isn’t acceptable on a flight. Presumably adult content will be filtered and banned, and voice calls could be outlawed simply on grounds of etiquette – everyone talking on a small tube, be it in the air or under the ground, could make for a nightmare of a journey. (That said, on a recent flight to Israel I had to endure a group of evangelical Christians playing guitars and singing gospel songs at the top of their voices for over an hour. I’d like Ofcom to make a ruling on that pronto).

These issues aside, the thought of being able to stream from my Netflix account while on a flight is one I find highly appealing, (no need to spend the night before manually stocking the iPad up with movies). I wonder in particular how Netflix will handle the region issues. If you start out in a country where Netflix is available you would expect it to work, but hopefully (because it would be daft) it wouldn’t cut out if you were flying over a region where the service isn’t available.

While that would be unlikely it shows that the sky will soon be a new frontier for the Internet, and rules and regulations will have to be set down.

It could certainly be an opportunity for network operators who could certainly engender customer loyalty amongst travellers by subsidising costs and bundling in-flight Wi-Fi deals into their tariffs. If that happens it won’t be too long before we’re all getting jiggy with it, tablet style, far above the clouds.


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