Is airline wifi any good and is it safe?
This question was answered on January 22, 2010. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.
In-flight wifi brings a whole new meaning to the term cloud computing! In past years, the offerings were expensive, restrictive and inconsistent.
Thats all changed with todays options and its what every business traveler that gets stuck on 3 or 4 hour flights has been praying for!
My personal experience with in-flight wifi was on a cross-country Delta flight and it proved to be a very productive use of $12.95 I was able to complete work that would normally have been delayed until after getting off the plane late at night.
The primary task was to get our newsletter completed and delivered, which is very web-intensive as its done completely through a web-based service (Exact Target), so a reliable Internet connection was critical.
I was pleasantly surprised at the speed and reliability of the connection (or maybe I managed my expectations really well!) and more importantly, was grateful that I didnt have to stay up late after a long flight to complete my work.
The actual service that I used was from Gogo (www.gogoinflight.com) which currently works with Air Canada, AirTran, American Airlines, Delta, United, Virgin America and is scheduled to launch service on Continental and US Airways this year.
Not all flights on all carriers are offering wifi at the moment (you can check which airlines are offering it on which aircraft at Gogos website) In most cases, it is being offered only on longer flights (3 hours) but that is bound to change.
Gogos service is based on a special high-speed cellular frequency that communicates via towers on the ground in the continental US.
Another provider Row 44 (www.row44.com) is a satellite based service which will allow them to provide service on transcontinental and domestic flights They are working with Alaska Airlines and Southwest amongst other international carriers.
As of this writing, the providers and airlines are not blocking access to any specific content or websites and are relying on passengers to behave themselves (this could change!)
One exception is voice traffic If you plan on using a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) service such as Skype to make voice calls in-flight, dont waste your money The airlines decided that their passengers didnt want to get stuck next to loud, obnoxious deal makers flapping their gums about their latest conquests during these long flights (good for them.)
Interestingly, you are allowed to connect via Skype for video only (the audio gets scrambled), but what good is that unless you know sign language.
Also, the Internet service can only be used at 10,000 feet or higher, so its not like you can use it during the whole flight or if you get stuck on the tarmac for hours waiting to take off.
As far as safety goes, this shouldnt be approached any different than any other public wifi connection If you arent careful, you could expose your computer to others on the flight, just like in the airport or at a hotel (my column on public wifi safety is posted here: http://bit.ly/2ldfHp.)
Be very mindful that those in the row behind you can easily see through the gaps in the seats to your screen or lots of folks if you are seated in the aisle seat This means you should avoid typing in any sensitive information or websites that will display sensitive information.
If your company requires you to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to connect to the company network, you may have problems getting it all to work depending upon how restrictive your IT department has set the VPN to be (check with them before your flight for the best results).
About the author
Posted by Ken Colburn of Data Doctors on January 22, 2010