Trials are continuing for in-flight Wi-Fi in Australia, but it's already available on some US services. Road Worrier puts it to the speed and value test.
It wasn't something I consciously planned, but as soon as I saw the signs advertising on-board Internet on my flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I knew I'd have to give it a try. I'd just had to pay a comparatively large sum for T-Mobile's painful-to-sign-into Wi-Fi while waiting in the Admiral's Cub lounge at SFO, so I had a basis for price and performance comparisons.
Signing into the service was as simple as you could expect; connect to the relevant Gogo Inflight Internet hotspot service, hand over some credit card details and that's it. Within a couple of minutes of being told electronic devices were allowed, I was tweeting about the fact I was tweeting on a plane, downloading email and jumping around a bunch of sites.
To minimise the prospect of annoying other passengers, you're banned from making video or audio calls using the service. In practice, that might be a little difficult anyway because of the speeds on offer. A quick test with speedtest.net suggested I had a download speed of 0.69 MB/s and an upload speed around half of that — enough for most web-based activities, but likely to produce a fairly poor experience when attempting even a voice call. (And that's not even allowing for the variations in speed as the plane juddered along).
As well as the voice ban, customers are reminded on the in-seat cards of what other activities aren't allowed:
Be courteous to your neighbours. Please stick to email and respectful internet browsing.
In other words: don't break out the porn. The same point is also made on the sign-in page, in slightly more "courteous" tones ("Please be aware the content you browse may be visible to passengers around you"). If nothing else, that's a reminder to be careful when looking at confidential business data as well.
The big sticking point wasn't speed or limited services as much as cost. I had to pay $US9.95 for a single flight, which in this case got me barely 40 minutes of access before we were told to switch everything off. On the ground, $US7.99 had scored me a day pass from T-Mobile that was valid for 24 hours — a better deal even if their sign-in systems are in serious need of overhaul. (One nice bonus of the service is free in-flight access to the site of the Wall Street Journal, which normally requires a subscription — but if that's all I'd wanted to do, I'd have bought a copy of the paper in the airport.)
A special promotional deal offered unlimited in-flight use for a month for $US29.95, which would start looking like a good deal if you were making several trips within the states. Conversely, if I'd been on a longer flight — LA to Orlando for instance — I'd have got better value from my single sign-in fee, assuming my battery was up to the task (or I'd scored a row with access to in-seat power, a more common option on AA flights compared to Australian airlines). For flights over 3 hours, the rate goes up to $US12.95.
The bottom line? On a lengthier trip, this could have been a real boon, especially if it coincided with the right time zone in Australia to get some meaningful collaborative work done. For a short-haul hop, it's an expensive indulgence that, cool as it was, I might not be able to justify again.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman probably doesn't need to increase his tweet count with mid-air communication. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.