American Airlines' WiFi debuts tomorrow; Glenn Fleishman's analysis

I blogged yesterday about chatter throughout the 'web surrounding plans by Virgin America and American Airlines to offer wireless broadband on domestic flights.

Included in that post were comments from a Virgin America spokesperson, and a promise from me that we'd speak to American Airlines and follow up with details soonest (American launches their WiFi this week, Virgin's waiting a bit longer).

Today I joined wireless tech journalist Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Networking News for a conversation with representatives from both AA and AirCell, the wireless provider behind the "Gogo" inflight internet which both VA and AA will offer.

Glenn kindly offered to contribute a guest post to Boing Boing with his analysis of American Airlines' plans. Here's his report (continues after the jump):

Lucky passengers on an American Airlines flight from JFK to Los Angeles tomorrow (Wednesday, June 25, 2008) will be the first commercial flyers to access high-speed, in-flight Internet service since the shutdown of Boeing's Connexion service in 2006. Tomorrow's flight is a round-trip test before a full-blown pilot program starts up and runs 3 to 6 months on all of American's 767-200 equipment -- 15 aircraft in total -- wending their way from JFK to SFO, LAX, and Miami.

The flight tomorrow is likely to put much more stress on the "Gogo" air-to-ground system built by Aircell, after their 2006 win in an FCC auction of a thin sliver of spectrum -- just 3 megahertz split between up and down directions, capable of carrying perhaps up to 2 or 3 Mbps. Doug Backelin, American's inflight communications and technology manager, said in an interview today with Xeni and me that, "We're going to do a dress rehearsal."

Gogo will be available at no costs to Wednesday's passengers, and that lets American and Aircell "see how the service performs on a full planeload of people, get their feedback, test our streaming video," and help "fine tune some things before our actual launch."

The full-on launch, slated for "the next couple of weeks," Backelin said, will involve charging for service: $12.95 for flights over 3 hours, Aircell's airline solutions director Dave Bijur said. "Eventually, when we have flights that operate shorter segments, as we will later this year when we launch with Virgin America," they'll also have a $9.95 plan for 3 hour or shorter segments.

To use the service, passengers will fire up a browser on a mobile device with Wi-Fi or a laptop, connect to a portal, and pay a fee after tomorrow's test. Some walled-garden content is available through the portal at no cost: all of American's site, as well as Wall Street Journal headlines and Frommers' travel information about the flight's destination. There are separate tailored portals for laptops and mobile devices.

BoingBoing readers will likely be ecstatic to hear that Aircell and American are entirely clueful when it comes to filtering for content. American's Backlein said the airline will "not block or filter content, and we're going to rely on the good judgement of our passengers, and also our flight crew do have polciies and procedures on inappropriate behavior." The crew already have to deal with people bringing on magazines and DVDs, and this falls into the same category.

Backelin noted that with the Connexion service, only Lufthansa requested content filtering, and turned that option off after a day. "They had so many complaints about customers not being able to reach legitimate Web sites; and, quite frankly, they had no complaints after doing that," he said.

Aircell and American won't filter for purpose, although they emphasized that the service is intended mostly for Web browsing, email transfer, and corporate network access via a virtual private network (VPN) connection. Aircell can prioritize data packets as needed to level out every passengers' experience.

The service is designed to work continuously handing off among towers that Aircell has equipped across the country. Bijur said that there may be moments, just like with ground service, when a connection might dip a bit, but the goal is for continuous and seamless service.

Where American is firm, however, is about VoIP: no phone calls from the plane! Backelin said, "For VoIP, Aircell is going essentially make VoIP unusable; we are focusing on a data-only service." While some folks have laughed at the notion that Aircell could entirely suppress voice, I have noted in the past that introducing jitter, dropping packets, and suppressing known forms of VoIP data based on scheduling and frequency would go a long way to making real-time communication impossible without affecting downloads and streaming video.

(It's useful to note that while Aircell has chosen to use a cellular standard for its air-to-ground communication -- EVDO Rev. A, the same as used on Verizon and Sprint's terrestrial networks -- that's just the protocol. There's no cellular "picocell" on board, and no cell component for this service unless your phone has a Wi-Fi mode.)

It's likely that any passenger trying to circumvent the limit will face other passengers' ill will and enforcement of American's ban by cabin crew, as well as technical difficulties. Backelin noted, "I don't think the US public wants that [voice calling] on aircraft." The FCC received several thousands of negative comments about in-flight calling over a few years when they solicited public input on the idea.

In Europe, Air France is testing a different system from OnAir on a single aircraft that allows text messages, GRPS data, and voice calls, although voice calling can be disabled. RyanAir is slated any time now to launch OnAir's satellite-based service, too, with voice calling at rates of $2.50 per minute or more that complement their no-frills, low-cost flights.

The service initially won't have any cached content on board, although Aircell's Bijur said that the company built an 800 gigabyte server into their offering. FAA airworthiness certification is rather elaborate, and it's far easier to build what you don't need into a system before it gets certified than modify it later. (That's also why the 767-200 fleet at American gets this service first: the Wi-Fi offering is approved on a model-by-model basis for aircraft.)

The 800 GB will likely be used for something. American's Backelin said that they were looking at putting media on board, and Bijur noted that they want to conquer offering Internet service from, but it's an obvious future part of their plans; he suggested an on-demand service could be one offering.

Bijur cautioned that tomorrow's test will provide the airline and his firm with lots of feedback, but wouldn't reflect real usage patterns when people start paying. "We're excited to see exactly what the results will look like when we go flying tomorrow," he said, but, "Everybody likes free ice cream."

The initial pricing could be mitigated through roaming partners, such as iPass, which resells worldwide hotspot and dial-up access to corporate customers and individuals, and has a deal in place with Aircell's Gogo; roaming pricing hasn't been set yet, however. American's Backelin said that the company would likely start tinkering with offerings towards the end of their pilot phase, which could include special deals for frequent flyers.

Smartphone users might hit a quandary with Gogo: many but not all phones that include both cellular and Wi-Fi radios let you turn off the cell part, but leave Wi-Fi enabled. The current iPhone 1.x software does not, but Apple told me in a briefing at the iPhone 3G announcement that the iPhone 2 software would include a way to disable everything but the Wi-Fi service.

Xeni noted in the interview that on an airline -- not American -- she "tried to do something with my iPhone while it was in airplane mode, and got into a fight" with a crew member over whether such a mode existed. The iPhone and other smartphones typically show a small plane or radio logo when they're in such a mode.

Backelin agreed that it would be an education process for flight crew, made harder by the "plethora of devices out there with a plethora of means to turn on various aspects or not."

When all 15 Boeing 767-200s are pressed into service, American's JFK/LAX route will have Gogo on every plane, as they only fly that equipment. The JFK/SFO and JFK/MIA routes have multiple aircraft types, and you'll need to check whether a 767-200 is in use for the flight you want. And be disappointed if there's an equipment swap after you book, as sometimes happens.

This model of plane has an Empower DC power port at every seat in first-class and business, and in a "scatter pattern" throughout coach. The airline has a schematic of the plane and where power is located if you want to book seats for that reason. Laptops and mobiles require an adapter, which costs from $30 to $50, often as part of a universal car and plane kit.

Scatter diagram: Link.

The two folks Xeni and I spoke with had a genuine attitude of excitement about the launch. I've been talking to Aircell for years about their service, and it must be rather neat to be this close to making it happen. And American's Backelin confessed that he and a colleague in engineering "have been working on this since 1999."

Ladies and gentleman, start your connections!

More on American Airlines' WiFi offering:

More on Gogo (the consumer brand for AirCell's in-flight internet product:

American and Virgin America to launch in-flight WiFi soon

(Thanks, Glenn Fleishman!)


  1. What are they going to do when some enterprising user with two wireless cards starts sharing the connection to everyone on the flight?

  2. #1: Cut him off? Have the cabin crew come back and yank his computer out of his hand? This isn’t a home network. These guys will be actively monitoring the network, and you can easily determine when NAT is in action, and so forth.

  3. I don’t really understand why this is all that exciting. Boeing had a WLAN service several years ago, which was admittedly canceled a while ago – but worked flawlessly. Both Lufthansa and SAS had this service, and I used it on a flight from Frankfurt to NYC back in 2005. As I recall, it was about 30 Euros for unlimited access, both ways.

  4. #3: The excitement is about a commercial launch for a service that has only a few things in common with Connexion by Boeing.

    Connexion: Satellite, expensive
    Aircell: air-to-ground, cheap
    (Row 44, coming soon: Satellite, cheap, they say)

    Connexion: Lots of heavy equipment, antenna with lots of drag
    Aircell: tiny antenna below plane, lightweight gear, almost no drag
    (Row 44: redesigned satellite antenna, gear)

    Connexion: alleged 5 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up, but shared across entire cell
    Aircell: alleged 2+ Mbps each way, company can subdivide cells as they which, future tech (EVDO Rev. B, for instance) will boost bandwidth
    (Row 44: 10s of Mbps down, a few up)

    Connexion: from $10 per hour to about $30 for a very long flight
    Aircell: $10 for sub-3 hour flights; $13 for 3+
    (Row 44: no idea)

    Connexion: outside the U.S. only
    Aircell: Domestic US to start with; later, Mexico, Canada, Carrib.
    (Row 44: around the US initially)

  5. Glenn:
    a) I doubt there will be a need to resort to violence.

    b) Who said anything about NAT? That’s certainly one way to share the connection, but a transparent web proxy isn’t going to be detectable, and it covers a wide selection of on-the-go internet needs. Even if it is NATed, it doesn’t have to be NATed on the plane. One could easily tunnel all the connections over a VPN before NATing them terrestrially (of course, that’s likely to be slow enough to not be worth the effort).

  6. Bob Moon as heard on PublicRadio’s Marketplace:
    “It’s free during the trial run, but in a few weeks if all goes according to plan, you’ll pay $12.95 to check your email.

    Of course, that’s after you’ve already spent $15 to check your bag.

    And think of it this way: Now you can go online to check if your connecting flight is running as late as the flight you’re on.”

  7. Hey look at it this way: AA said they will not be restricting or filtering content at all, because of the possibility that they will block legitimate content if they try. There’s some rare common sense for ya.

    I’m fine with paying $13 to use in-flight internet, as long as I get to use it how I wish. If I find the price is too high, I won’t pay for it. Capitalism baby! Yeah!

  8. #5: “transparent web proxy isn’t going to be detectable, and it covers a wide selection of on-the-go internet needs. Even if it is NATed, it doesn’t have to be NATed on the plane. One could easily tunnel all the connections over a VPN before NATing them terrestrially (of course, that’s likely to be slow enough to not be worth the effort).”

    That’s all very nice, but it assumes that Aircell isn’t clever enough to examine usage patterns, etc. It’s one thing if you’re redistributing in a large network; another when a company can look at all the connections emerging from one system.

    No one laptop is going to be checking 10 different email accounts at the same time, f’r’instance.

    And you’re putting a lot of faith into “this can’t be detected.” I expect some people will share via Ethernet with their seat mates. Mac OS X and Windows isn’t set up out of the box to connect to an infrastructure Wi-Fi network and create its own network to share, either. SO you’re assuming modified OS (requiring special drivers or just additional software), two Wi-Fi cards, or Linux laptop users.

  9. People certainly do share their connections in public spaces, though admittedly not all that often. Why? Because they can, and they like sticking it to the nebulous “man.” Unlike those other spaces, an airplane is a much smaller space, and it’s easier to maintain the connection.

    All the tech talk is fine and good, but the folks in charge of the plane aren’t going to know a NAT from a gnat. Just because the shared networks themselves or, much more subtly, their traffic patterns are detectable doesn’t mean anyone will bother checking. If AirCell wants to head it off, they’ll need to figure out a hands-off solution. I’m sure if there’s enough sharing, they’ll find a way. But I’d be surprised if sharing was rampant enough to become a big issue. Even if folks put up open connections, there might be plenty of folks shelling out the fee because they’re either clued out or unwilling to game the system.

  10. Glenn: As usual, it only takes one. Windows and Mac users will be able to share the connection of a Linux user.

    Also, who’s to say how many email accounts I’m allowed to access from the plane? I have 3 or 4, myself, and since I check them all via encrypted connections, I’m not at all convinced that AirCell will be able to detect anything.

    The more likely event is that nothing will be done unless sharing becomes rampant, which is unlikely.

    B2B: People would want to share the connection because then only one person needs to pay. The rich can pay for the less well-off, the tech-savvy can enjoy sticking it to the man, etc. Everyone on the plane will be sharing the downlink from plane to cell towers regardless, so as long as the sharer’s laptop can handle the load, it won’t be the bottleneck–the plane’s connection will be.

    Finally, people do share hotel wireless connections. It’s probably pretty rare, but I know that it’s done.

  11. #10 (Gerta): “All the tech talk is fine and good, but the folks in charge of the plane aren’t going to know a NAT from a gnat.”

    The network can be monitored (and will be) from the ground. It’s absolutely not autonomous. There’s a kind of pervasive assumption that unless you’re a Linux geek, you don’t know how to examine network traffic.

    “Just because the shared networks themselves or, much more subtly, their traffic patterns are detectable doesn’t mean anyone will bother checking.”

    I doubt that’s correct. I expect they’ll be monitoring this closely to see whether the problem you suggest becomes widespread.

    #11 (Bill): No Linux user would pay $13 for a connection! That’s a joke.

    “Also, who’s to say how many email accounts I’m allowed to access from the plane? I have 3 or 4, myself, and since I check them all via encrypted connections, I’m not at all convinced that AirCell will be able to detect anything.”

    I’m not saying that. I’m saying that it’s possible to monitor the behavior and see if it falls outside the norm. With a VPN (not just encrypted connections), that would make that part unknowable, of course.

    However, each passenger can be prioritized and throttled. So if you’re sharing a connection (for whatever reason that might possibly make sense to you, given the notion that I wouldn’t really want to engage in a form of theft of services or contract fraud while 35,000 feet up), you might get throttled down to 200 Kbps, making the connection unusable for shared purposes.

    “The rich can pay for the less well-off, the tech-savvy can enjoy sticking it to the man, etc.”

    Ah, yes, the man! The unprofitable airlines that are desperately trying to cope with a epoch-changing state of affairs regarding fuel without going bankrupt and making it actually ruinously expensive to travel cross country. That man.

    That man isn’t keeping you down (or up). The airlines that are running this system aren’t charging a ridiculous rate relative to its utility or its costs.

  12. Glenn: You’ll note that I didn’t say I wanted to stick it to the man, but there are plenty of people out there that get a thrill out of supposedly doing so. Looking at the world from their perspective is often useful. The thing you have to remember is that if it can be done, it will be (given a low enough set of disincentives).

    Also, I do think the big unprofitable carriers could stand to get stuck a little, but I’m happy to let Southwest keep eating their lunch. I guarantee you that a few $13 Internet access purchases aren’t going to be the thing that saves the majors.

    Finally, as long as we’re somewhat off topic, I don’t see how it matters whether I engage in theft of services or breach of contract at 35,000 ft. or on the ground.

    Now, what I am interested in is, like other ISPs, how companies like Aircell plan respond to things that are easy to do over their networks, including things like sharing connections or firing up a BitTorrent session. We all must agree that home broadband sharing is at least somewhat common or perhaps even pervasive in some areas via unsecured Wifi routers (hell, even Bruce Schneier leaves his Wifi router open), but terrestrial Internet suppliers don’t see to make a big fuss about it. It’s rare that you hear of someone cut off for sharing their broadband at home.

    I thought that because you had done such an extensive analysis you might have the inside track to EULA information or Aircell’s policies on connection sharing. Heck, I might have even thought that it was an obvious question to ask in your interview.

  13. #13: “I thought that because you had done such an extensive analysis you might have the inside track to EULA information or Aircell’s policies on connection sharing. Heck, I might have even thought that it was an obvious question to ask in your interview.”

    Thanks! Xeni and I did ask about a lot of policy issues, and they’re obviously still settling some. They have this 3-6 month pilot program it seems partly to learn what people will really do!

    I’ll be curious to see their EULA.

    Connection sharing is banned on all commercial hotspot networks, although it’s not rooted out in, say, hotel rooms where people might share a connection to visitors or colleagues who aren’t sharing the room, too. That’s not a real loss of revenue to the hotel.

    On a plane, if someone shared, it’s pretty clear it’s a potential loss of revenue.

    I appreciate that you’re devil’s-advocating. I get wary of speculating too much about people’s behavior against the EULA — partly because the law in a cabin in the air is different than the law on the ground, where the pilot is absolute and “interferring” with the cabin crew can be a quite broad category.

  14. Glenn: I suppose that if the flight crew asks someone to stop sharing and they refuse, that’s probably “interfering” with the flight crew and punishable. I’ll happily conceded the point for the time being. But I doubt that merely violating the EULA counts. Am I interfering with the flight crew when I bring a bigger than regulation carry-on bag on the plane (not, mind you, whether I refuse to gate-check it or door-check it when asked)? If so, I fly with a lot of felons!

    Also, I doubt very seriously that the Aircell team will be in good enough air-to-ground contact with the flight crew to say that “Passenger John Doe appears to be violating our terms of service. Can you ask them to cut it out?” It seems more likely to me that if they can detect it that in situ technological and/or ex post civil legal measures will be employed. I draw this conclusion based on the fact that proving the sharing will be difficult even if the suspicion is quite high. So, QoS tactics (including disabling the connection) and breach of contract suits seem more likely.

    I’d like to point out that connection sharing is likely banned on all for-profit, commercial WiFi hotspots, but that’s probably what you meant. Still, I consider the free WiFi at my local coffee shop to be a commercial service (which may or may not ban sharing, though I doubt many do given the lack of need to protect revenue and the fact that I’ve never been presented with an EULA at one of my local joints) even though it raises no direct revenue. Free WiFi at a terrestrial restaurant serves the purpose of attracting and retaining paying (for food) customers and is, therefore, certainly commercial.

    Finally, I’m curious if you have any data from Aircell on the likely number of full-fare users per-flight they expect (leaving the iPass users and the complexities of Aircell’s arrangement with iPass to one side for the moment). It seems like this will be a fairly small number and that the airlines are more likely to be using in-flight WiFi as a customer attractant rather than a revenue stream. It doesn’t seem like the revenue will be enough to offset the cost of the equipment, but if you have data to the contrary, I’d love to see it. This then raises the (tentative) question as to why the airlines would even bother charging for the service. It seems like a JetBlue-style model (where the TV is free) would go over quite well.

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