September 15, 2008
You Can Surf, but Please, No Talking
By Joe Sharkey
"The nice thing about a long-haul flight is you've got time to do a lot of different things," said Jack Blumenstein, chief executive of Aircell.True. You can read. You can watch the movie or, on a few airlines, enjoy live satellite television. You can work, eat, drink or sleep. And now, thanks to new technology by Aircell, you can get broadband Internet service on your laptop.
But one thing you may not do is use that Internet hookup for VoIP, the voice over Internet protocol services provided by companies like Skype. In other words, you may not use your newly empowered laptop connection in flight to make a voice phone call, even though the technological capability to do so is there.
Reflecting the continuing battles over mobile use in new public settings, Aircell and American Airlines - so far the only airline offering Aircell's in-flight Internet access, called Gogo - have erected technological barriers to block Skype and similar software programs from enabling voice calls in the insulated environment of the airplane cabin. American Airlines began offering Gogo last month.
Whether they ultimately succeed is open to question because, as Blumenstein acknowledges, the technologically savvy are good at getting around barriers.
"Whenever you get an innovative group of people flying," he said, "you're going to have some people saying: 'Well, I know how to defeat that. I'm just going to go around the barn door.'"
For years, airlines and many of their passengers have expressed concern about the inevitability of in-flight cellphone capability, now that flight safety issues like the potential for interference with avionics communications at cruising altitude are resolved.
But with little advance notice, the Aircell broadband service has brought the camel's nose into the tent. And while there are raging controversies about cellphone use on ground-based public transportation like trains and buses, imagine how much more intense the concern becomes in an airplane cabin, where passengers are confined, often for long hours, in close proximity, unable to flee.
Worried about the in-flight equivalent of road rage, airlines have been less than enthusiastic about any form of voice-call capability.
Jeff Gendel, who works in private equity, was sending e-mail messages via his broadband connection last week on an American flight to Los Angeles from New York, where he lives. He said that before signing on, he asked a Gogo customer agent on the flight about using Skype and was told that he had to limit himself to instant messaging.
"The Internet and instant-message access is a huge and overdue step forward in travel productivity," he said, adding, "I think the jury is still out on phone conversations at 30,000 feet."
Blumenstein and others point out that there are no regulatory rules prohibiting VoIP use on commercial flights. The objection and the ban are strictly over social concerns, he said. But if passengers are found using voice capabilities on Aircell's service, "we can exercise the right to turn your access off," Blumenstein said.
The idea of having legal voice-communications capabilities and not being able to use them does not sit well with many people. It's a hot topic on many technology blogs.
Airlines should allow voice calls, at least for business travelers, one woman posting on Computerworld.com said, adding that she thought business people could be counted on to use the service in a "respectful, quiet manner."
But that optimism is not shared by others who assert that, as a blogger elsewhere put it, "these Type-A business people are the worst in bellowing on their cellphones." Another comment on Computerworld.com supported the in-flight blocking of Skype and similar programs "until phone users learn to speak in a normal conversational tone instead of shouting."
On CrunchGear.com, one user said he had been able to connect briefly on Skype - "enough to say hello, meet me and goodbye" before the blocking system sniffed out the connection and shut it down.
Skype has been coy. The service, owned by eBay, finds the new in- flight broadband opportunities "exciting," said a spokeswoman, Jennifer Caukin. "We are all for bringing more Internet access to people, wherever and whenever," she said
The Gogo service costs $12.95 a flight for cross-country flights or $9.95 for those of three hours or less. Delta Air Lines and Virgin America plan to offer Gogo by the end of the year.
So far, no airline has given the green light to voice calls. "Most of the airlines we're dealing with said, 'No, we really don't want voice on airplanes,'" Blumenstein said.
People can become quite testy about the prospects of having to listen to others - or at least to strangers sitting near them. All over the country, commuter buses and train lines have been banning cellphone calls.
Besides Skype, VoIP service packages are provided by numerous other companies, including big ones like Vonage and a growing array of smaller providers and start-ups. In developing Gogo, it has been a challenge to keep up with them all, Blumenstein said.
"As we identify new ways that people are trying to do voice calls on the airplane, we just kind of zero in and knock those off," he said. "But it's kind of a constant friendly race between us and the technologically savvy."
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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