American Airlines has begun testing Wi-Fi Internet access on a limited number of flights on San Francisco/New York, Los Angeles/New York and New York/Miami routes.
Unlike the now defunct Boeing Connexion service, which used satellites and required a tracking antenna, the American Airlines system uses 800 MHz ground stations. The ground stations use EVDO technology, similar to the terrestrial wireless services offered by Verizon and Sprint. Passengers use Wi-Fi to connect to the radio in the plane that’s communicating with the ground stations. In addition to less complicated, lower-weight electronics on the planes, using ground stations rather than satellites shortens latency and allows the use of VPN for security.
Aircell is providing the ground-air links through its GoGo in-flight service. The system should work with Wi-Fi devices supporting 802.11a/b/g. Supported browsers include Internet Explorer 6 or 7, Mozilla Firefox, or Safari on Apple OS X.
During this test phase, the service is free. Once regular service begins, the price will be $12.95 on flights longer than three hours and $9.95 on flights less than three hours. E-mail is given priority in the system. Since the bandwidth has to be shared among all passengers using the service, don’t expect it to work with video streaming.
Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walt Mossberg tested the service on a business jet with AirCell GoGo Wi-Fi service. A podcast is available describing his experience testing a variety of devices with the service. He found download speeds averaged around 500-600 kbps while upload speeds were 250-300 kbps. All VoIP services are blocked, so you shouldn’t have to worry about your seatmate chatting on Skype throughout the flight!
The GoGo Web site has more information about the service.
Virgin America plans to offer GoGo service in the future. Southwest is also looking at adding Internet access on some of its flights, apparently by using satellite links.
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