Airborne WiFi

| Networking
This is interesting. Aircell is going to offer airborne WiFi:
AirCell paid $31.3 million at an FCC auction last year to take over radio frequency once used for expensive air-phone service and reallocate it to Internet and cellphone service. The Internet service already has the approval of both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration. Mr. Blumenstein says AirCell, a closely held Colorado company that provides communications for private jets, is building out its network of 80 to 100 ground towers and talking to multiple airlines. No customers have been named yet.

"It can't happen soon enough," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel technology analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

AirCell will install equipment on airliners that will act as a WiFi hotspot in the cabin and connect to laptop computers and devices like BlackBerrys that have WiFi chips. In all, it will cost about $100,000 to outfit a plane with less than 100 pounds of equipment, and the work can be done overnight by airline maintenance workers, AirCell says.

What makes the service particularly attractive to airlines is that they will share revenue with AirCell. The service will cost about the same as existing WiFi offerings. Mr. Blumenstein says it will charge no more than $10 a day to passengers. It will also offer discounted options for customers and tie into existing service programs like T-Mobile, iPass and Boingo. Speeds will be equivalent to WiFi service on the ground.

At some level this is super-convenient and $10/day is pretty good. I've certainly had plenty of times when I was on the plane and realized I'd forgotten some file and wished I had Internet access. Even lousy Internet access would be pretty convenient in such cases. On the other hand, one of the nice things about being on a plane is that it forces you to actually work on whatever it it is you're supposed to be working on rather than surfing the net. AirCell says they're planning to block VoIP service (it would be sort of interesting to hear exactly how they're going to do that...) but of course there is plenty of interest in cell service, especially in Europe:

OnAir and AeroMobile both install "pico cell" receivers on planes that connect to cellular phones, allowing them to operate at low power to minimize technical problems. The pico cell then routes calls to cellular networks through a satellite link.

Only about 14 calls or fewer can be successfully made at a time per flight, and airline crews can turn the system off during takeoff and landing. If you make the 15th call, you'll get some kind of indication of "no service."

Apparently they're going with a circuit-switched model with admission control, which is pretty old-school PSTN. If people were using Skype, they'd get a quite different experience: as the network got more loaded people would just get worse call quality (dropouts, etc.), but nobody would ever be told "no". This is of course the way that traditional telephony networks work, but as far as I know there's no technical reason you couldn't offer a packet-switched type service that interfaced to the airplane picocell and then bridged back to the GSM network (though you'd need to do something more sophisticated than just pass the media packets back and forth, silence suppression, etc.) That's probably a primarily cultural issue—the providers seem fairly closely tied to the cell phone providers, who are big on this kind of reserved bandwidth system (typically under the name of quality of service).