As Farhad Manjoo predicted months ago, it seems that, indeed, soon -- this time, really soon -- most airlines will have in-flight Internet access. Today American Airlines announced that it would be providing on-board Wi-Fi at $13 per flight on most flights from San Francisco/Los Angeles to New York and New York to Miami. (Technically speaking, we're only talking about AA's Boeing 767-200 fleet.)
And like Farhad, I've got pretty much one thing to say to this: Woo-hoo! (Start your angry e-mails ranting about the electronic leash and that annoying guy next to you on the plane now, please.)
Not surprisingly, VoIP-based calls (that means no Skype) will theoretically be blocked, so you won't have to worry too much about your overly chatty neighbor trying to call his buddy in Denver to tell him that she's currently flying over his house. That being said, the Dallas Morning News' Airline Biz Blog reports that it was able to get a sustained Skype connection. Maybe the American Airlines techs haven't quite gotten around to port blocking just yet.
Aircell, the company behind this new service (it's called Gogo Inflight), will be charging $13 for flights of three hours or more, and $10 for anything under that. The company uses some interesting gadgetry, actually, to make the Internet work at 35,000 feet.
As I reported for NPR late last year, Aircell claims that it can shoot an Internet signal by pointing cellphone towers skyward. Given that the only thing between that tower and planes equipped with the special receivers are nice fluffy clouds, the signal travels nicely. The on-board receiver then transfers that signal to a few Wi-Fi routers scattered around the plane so that your iPhone (WiFi-enabled), BlackBerry or laptop can use it. Jack Blumenstein, the company's CEO, told me last year that his company only needs 90 towers to cover the continental U.S. The Washington Post adds, however, that "the company will add 400 more towers to accommodate growing demand for the service."
In the past, in-flight Internet used expensive satellite connections. Conexion by Boeing was expensive to install, cost about $10 per hour for the user, and worst of all, it took a fair amount of time to get the gear hooked up. Blumenstein also told me in an interview last year that Aircell's kit only takes an overnight stop at a major airport hub. (Boeing killed off its service in 2006.)
Continental apparently will be releasing a free online service, limited to e-mail and instant messaging, that sounds a lot like JetBlue's single plane trial from last December.
Southwest and Alaska are banking on satellite-based services provided by another company, Row 44, but neither airline has announced a start date for such service. However, Flight International, an industry publication, reports that Southwest will be trialing Row 44's services before the end of the year.
That said, Portfolio.com's Joe Brancatelli remains bearish on the entire prospect of in-flight Net access from a business perspective. He notes that overseas, another European competitor, OnAir (sponsored by Airbus), "seems stalled."