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!)