Sunday, December 08, 2002

Well, it seems that in flight internet access , both fixed and wireless, will shortly be with us. This comes on top of in flight cellphone service , in which essentially a microcell is established inside the aircraft, and where your phone "roams" from your home network to that inside the plane. (How well this will work in the US, where there are networks using (at first approximation) four different technical cellphone standards remains to be seen. In Europe, you presumably just set up a 900MHz GSM cell with roaming agreements with all the main carriers and it works fine. That said, the company mentioned is Verizon, which uses CDMA, so maybe not).

This is a sign that one of the peculiar anomalies of this world full of (increasingly networked) electronics and gadgets is going away: that nothing works when you are on an aircraft.

Going on a long-haul flight is something that to me is akin to getting in a sensory deprivation tank (although I have never been in a sensory deprivation tank, so perhaps I'm just bullshitting). In normal life, I am constantly being bombarded by informaiton: phone calls, e-mail, news bulletins from television, the WWW, radio, LED tickers in Piccadilly Circus, etc. I carry a reasonable amount of stuff around with me at all times: cellphone, digital camera. Often the backpack over my shoulders contains a laptop computer. Plus there are other gadgets I am constantly coming in contact with, even if I do not carry them. Televisions in shop windows, newspaper banners, you name it.

However, when I get on a plane, I am completely cut off. People who only fly relatively short distances may not really experience this. However, I come from Australia and live in Britain, so I am used to flights that go for as much as 14 hours. (If I am flying from Europe to Australia, it is two flights and a total of 23 hours, with a little one hour respite in Singapore). In this time, the phone doesn't work. I suddenly have no access to the internet. Even if I try to use my gadgets without communicating without anyone else, I can only do so for a while before my batteries run out. The airline might show a news bulletin, but it will be a news bulletin from before the plane took off. Time seems to have stopped.

This has slowly been changing. Some efforts have been better than others. In 1993, I made the Australia-UK flight on Cathay Pacific. In theory one of the audio channels I could listen to on my headset was the BBC World Service, which the plane was receiving via shortwave. Sadly, all I heard was an impressive amount of static.

We have had telephones in planes for a while, but the cost of using them has generally been so high that most people couldn't use them. However, setting up cellphone equipment is going to lower the cost of the hardware considerably, so hopefully this will lower the cost of using them. (Also, people's cost expectations will hopefully be lower in the case of cellphones, so airlines won't try to charge as much. Finally, we are getting actual live television .

We do not yet have a situation where a passenger can get all of these things at the same time, or where a passenger can have all these things every (or even any) time he or she flies. But they are coming.

What is also interesting is to see that there are two basic price models. Price them outrageously, or make them only available to people in business class, so that they are only available to people on expense accounts, or make them available free in the hope that people will choose the airline on that basis. I suspect that the business only charging will not last. In virtually all cases the capital costs are large and the marginal costs of use are small. Demand for these services is clearly not going to be restricted to expense account passengers and there is considerable competition between airlines. This will essentially lead to free services in the case where the marginal cost is essentially zero, for instance when the airline receives and plays satellite television services that are being transmitted by the satellite anyway, or where the airline gives the passenger a few tenths of a Watt of electricity through an outled in the armrest. And it will lead to services that cost not too much more than the marginal cost when there is some marginal cost - that is for services where data is being transmitted as well as received. (Expect internet service to be much cheaper than voice, as bursty packet based data is always much cheaper than a switched circuit for voice).

Some people might object to the connected fast moving world being extended to air travel, but not me. Air travel is unpleasant, and allowing me to do and see more things while I am travelling will make it less so. If I want to be cut off from the world, I will go for a month's vacation in Nepal .

Update: Another interesting issue is that an aircraft outfitted with a full complement of communications equipment of this kind is likely to be extremely useful in disaster relief in the third world, and also in situations where infrastructure has been destroyed through national disaster or through war and terrorism. Essentially, land a team of people in an aircraft outfitted in this way, and the team has brought mobile infrastructure with them. Telephone links, computer network links, satellite television links (that could easily be made two way), all are in place automatically when such an aircraft lands. This could be extremely useful.

Of course, President Bush already has this kind of equipment in place in Air Force One, and the armed forces have other aircraft fitted out for command and control purposes in the same way, so what is happening now is that technology is being adapted for civilian use rather than invented from scratch. However, the large scale installation of this kind of stuff in the world's fleet of airliners could have significant benefits.

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