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

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15 Responses to “American Airlines' WiFi debuts tomorrow; Glenn Fleishman's analysis”

  1. Glenn Fleishman says:

    #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.

  2. Elanfx says:

    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.”

  3. B2B says:

    Why would anyone try to share the limited-connection to the entire plane?

    If they don’t do it in airports and hotels, why start in a very crowded, limited-bandwidth airplane?

    But, is “Wi-Fly” a good idea?

  4. Glenn Fleishman says:

    #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.

  5. Bill Barth says:

    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.

  6. gerta says:

    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.

  7. Bill Barth says:

    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.

  8. Bill Barth says:

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

  9. Enochrewt says:

    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!

  10. Glenn Fleishman says:

    #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.

  11. Glenn Fleishman says:

    #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.

  12. wheezer says:

    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.

  13. Glenn Fleishman says:

    #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)

  14. Bill Barth says:

    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).

  15. Bill Barth says:

    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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