Staying connected while in the air is fast becoming a reality (overseas), but Qantas and Virgin Blue are still staying mum on their plans.
If you've been lucky enough to travel in the United States recently, one thing might have particularly struck you as an APC reader - nearly all domestic planes have Wi-Fi internet in them. While it might be exaggerating to say Americans now take this for granted (they're still pretty excited about it, in truth), they are as used to having inflight broadband as we are to having the world's fastest mobile network (Telstra Next G).
So, why is it taking so long to come to Australian domestic aircraft? It's hard to get a straight answer out of anyone, really. Even though Qantas' now slightly-infamous but nonetheless state-of-the-art Airbus A380s have an in-seat web browser and Wi-Fi installed in the aircraft, the plane is not actually linked to the internet yet.
Qantas blames the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA), saying it's a regulatory issue. ACMA, in response to APC's enquiries, said there was nothing preventing Australian airlines from providing inflight broadband, as long as all the equipment on the plane satisfied the requirements of the Radio Communications Act. However, it did say that while Australian planes are always subject to Australian radio communication regulations, airlines were also subject to the radio communication laws of countries they flew over, creating a layer of complexity for airlines.
In the US, inflight Wi-Fi is common in domestic flights.
Pressed for further info, Qantas simply told us: "The Qantas A380 offers a state-of-the-art on-demand Panasonic inflight entertainment system. As part of this system, an Internet service including Webmail and Webchat services is expected to be available in the future. Qantas is currently reviewing potential for extending broader inflight connectivity across domestic and international fleets but has no current plans to implement SMS, GPRS email, internet or targeted voice connectivity."
Meanwhile, Virgin Blue has nothing to announce on inflight internet, however its new CEO, John Borghetti, formerly Qantas' head of marketing, is open about the fact that he is looking at every angle the airline can take to pull the rug out from underneath Qantas' lucrative business traveller crowd. Logically, he must be looking at inflight internet as a key competitive advantage that Virgin Blue could add to its fleet as it tries to attract business travellers. Interestingly, Virgin Blue uses an inflight TV service called "LiveTV", which is owned by the US airline JetBlue. JetBlue has recently adapted the LiveTV system to offer internet access over its satellite link as well - which suggests Virgin Blue might be able to do the same.
One thing that does look likely to come sooner rather than later - because it has been specifically approved by ACMA - is global roaming inflight, where your airline provides a pico-cell in the plane that your phone or 3G laptop/tablet could connect to for data/SMS. The airline would be required to jam signals to terrestrial base stations from your handset, to prevent handsets from going to maximum transmission power mode (civil aviation regulators still fear that hundreds of mobiles transmitting at full power in an effort to communicate with ground towers could cause interference with aircraft systems).
Usage would be billed to you as if you were travelling in a "foreign country" - that is, it's expected to be very expensive. Telstra, surprisingly, complained vehemently about this arrangement, arguing that airlines should charge a flat per-flight access fee, and then allow customers to communicate via the aircraft with their existing carriers and have usage billed into their standard phone plans.
Around the world in 80ms
The situation for international flights is far better than for Australian domestic flights, fortunately. Lufthansa is the first international airline to actually reactivate inflight internet in a small number of planes on its Frankfurt to New York route and says it will roll it out progressively across its entire fleet. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t fly to Australia, so you won't get the benefit of inflight internet on the long haul flight from Australia to its hubs in Europe.
Other closer airlines are gearing up to introduce inflight internet this year and next year: Singapore Airlines (first half of 2011); Emirates (2012); and Cathay Pacific (2012).
Many international airlines are rolling out inflight internet this year, but will Australian routes be covered?
In America, the dominant inflight internet system is called "GoGo". It uses a grid of land-based mobile phone towers with antennae pointed at the sky, transmitting EV-DO signals to planes. (You may remember EV-DO from when Telstra operated BigPond Wireless over it – it’s an overlay to the CDMA mobile network standard, and was shut down in Australia along with the closure of the CDMA network in favour of 3G/HSPA). The signals are retransmitted inside planes by Wi-Fi. Pricing is keen - a flight pass for a short flight can be as little as $4.95, or a month's unlimited access costs $34.95 - but regularly goes on sale for $19.95. Over the last Christmas period, Google sponsored the cost of providing it to passengers free of charge as a promotion to encourage the use of its Chrome web browser.
However, such a system isn't viable in Australia, because while America is inhabited right across its continent - and requires mobile towers right across - Australia has vast tracts of uninhabited desert that planes fly over with no need for mobile coverage.
Other inflight internet systems are generally provided by satellite link to the plane, with a LAN provided inside the plane via Wi-Fi and Ethernet. They vary vastly in capacity, though. For example, Airbus/SITA's inflight internet system, called OnAir, uses an Inmarsat SwiftBroadband satellite connection, which provides only 432Kbit/s to be divvied up between the whole planeload of passengers.
On the other end of the spectrum, Panasonic Avionics' inflight broadband system, called eXconnect, offers a symmetric down/uplink speed for the plane of 50Mbit/s - more than 100 times faster than the Airbus system. Oddly, although Qantas has installed Panasonic Avionics inflight entertainment systems in its A380s, the seat-back web browser displays error messages referring to the Airbus OnAir connection not being present, so it's not clear whether Qantas plans to use the slow OnAir service or is considering using Panasonic's superior system instead.
Wait up… didn't we already have this 10 years ago?
Spot on. Boeing spent a billion dollars building an inflight internet system that blanketed the world's aircraft with a satellite signal, which was rebroadcast inside planes via Wi-Fi. However, the US aircraft giant pulled the plug when its board decided to cut its losses after failing to get enough customer usage of the system.
So what went wrong? The equipment cost $500,000 per plane and was extremely heavy at around 450kg - nearly half a tonne of extra weight that airlines had to freight around the world on each flight. It also took several days to install the Connexion routers and wiring, costing airlines millions of dollars in lost ticket revenue.
Finally, it was probably a bit before its time - between 2001 and 2006 (when Boeing pulled the plug), most people still had regular candybar phones, not smartphones, and weren't as used to having email in their pocket at all times as they are today. Airlines also did a very poor job of marketing the service, often failing to include any brochures in seat pockets, signage in the planes or announcements of the availability of inflight internet on flights.This story was written by Dan Warne, a former APC staffer who now works for Australian Business Traveller