Wi-Fi in the Sky

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While cruising along at about 31,000 feet on an American Airlines flight in late October, I checked e-mail on my laptop. There, in Gmail's Spam folder, were three new messages offering the usual outrageously annoying, hokey promises. You know the type: Someone from Nigeria was informing me I could claim 7 million dollars in U.S. funds.

Spam in the sky--I should have seen it coming. The bigger news here, though, is that I surfed the Internet all the way from San Francisco to New York. The ride was a bit bumpy at times, but for the most part, the on-board Wi-Fi experience, supplied by Aircell's Gogo service, went smoothly.

The Back Story

American Airlines is the first U.S. carrier to offer wireless networking on multiple routes and aircraft. In August 2008, Aircell's Gogo service became available on 15 of American's Boeing 767-200 aircraft, flying in the U.S. from San Francisco to JFK; Los Angeles to JFK; and Miami to JFK. Gogo connects each aircraft's wireless access points to a network of cell towers on the ground throughout the continental U.S.

In-flight Wi-Fi has been a long time coming. American began investigating wireless networking as a service in 1999, says Doug Backelin, the airline's manager of in-flight communications and technology.

Like many other airlines, American put its wireless network plans on hold following the 2001 terrorist attacks, the subsequent travel industry slump, and other challenges. Now, with airlines looking for new revenue streams, wireless networking is finally arriving.

Along with American, Delta is rolling out wireless networking systemwide this fall, while Alaska Airlines, Continental, Southwest Airlines, Jet Blue, and Virgin America are testing Wi-Fi or have limited trials in operation.

American is testing Wi-Fi to see what customers think before expanding the service, Backelin says.

The Experience

At my departure gate in San Francisco, Aircell had a stand staffed by two people who handed out brochures and cards offering a one-time 25 percent discount. I registered for the service at the gate using one of Aircell's laptops.

The Gogo service costs $13 for coast-to-coast flights and $10 for flights of 3 hours or less.

On board the flight, after the captain gave the go-ahead for using electronic devices, I plugged my Apple MacBook Air into the power port at my coach cabin seat. Given how quickly wireless networking can drain a laptop battery, having a power outlet available is important for surfing in the sky.

Fortunately, American is among the most generous U.S. airlines in terms of offering power ports throughout first, business, and coach cabins on certain aircraft. Only seats in first and business class have their own dedicated power outlets. If you're in coach, you may have to share the power outlet (fortunately, my seat mate didn't need to use it), or your seat may not have a power outlet at all. Before you book, consult the Boeing 767-200 seating chart on American's site or Seatguru.com.

An Aircell page appeared soon after I launched Mozilla Firefox on my laptop. Signing in and providing the promotional code took just a minute or two.

From my seat (30J), the strength of the Gogo wireless network was excellent. Each aircraft is equipped with three Wi-Fi access points, Backelin says, to help ensure a consistently strong signal throughout.

Once connected, I checked my e-mail and bank balances. I watched half a dozen YouTube videos, all of which played with only an occasional lag. I read news headlines on PCWorld.com, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

Disappointing Downloads

Having all this entertainment and information available certainly helped the time pass. The only disappointment was Apple's iTunes music store. After I clicked to launch the store in iTunes, nothing materialized for at least 15 minutes. Once the store finally became available, I tried previewing a few songs. But the stream was so stop-and-start, I gave up. Thoughts of downloading a Mad Men episode to watch in flight quickly evaporated.

ITunes aside, the speed in which Web pages loaded and videos streamed seemed relatively close to what I experience on my home wireless network (I have a DSL connection from AT&T). Using Speedtest.net to benchmark speeds, my home wireless network delivers about 1724 kilobits per second (kbps) for downloads and 428 kbps (uploads). In the air, Speedtest.net recorded top speeds of 1465 kbps (downloads) and 317 (uploads). Not bad.

By the way, the Gogo service on American doesn't let you use VoIP services such as Skype and Vonage--to the relief of many flyers, including me.

The Wrap Up

Surfing the Web at near-DSL speeds from coast to coast for only $13 is, to use an overused word, awesome. Finally, at a time when airlines are charging more money for less service, there is good news for frequent flyers. From now on, whenever possible, I plan to fly routes only in which wireless networking is available.

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Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it[mailto:james_martin@pcworld.com]. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

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