Q: Is airline Wi-Fi any good and is it safe? — Wade
A: In-flight Wi-Fi brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘cloud computing!’ In past years, the offerings were expensive, restrictive, and inconsistent.
That’s all changed with today’s options and it’s what every business traveler that gets stuck on three or four hour flights has been praying for!
My personal experience with in-flight Wi-Fi 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 it’s 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 important, was grateful that I didn’t have to stay up late after a long flight to complete my work.
The actual service that I used was from Gogo, 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 Wi-Fi at the moment (you can check which airlines are offering it on which aircraft at Gogo’s Web site). In most cases, it is being offered only on longer flights (3+ hours), but that is bound to change.
Gogo’s 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, is a satellite based service which will allow it to provide service on transcontinental and domestic flights. It is working with Alaska Airlines and Southwest, among other international carriers.
As of this writing, the providers and airlines are not blocking access to any specific content or Web sites 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, don’t waste your money. The airlines decided that their passengers didn’t 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 apparently 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 it’s 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 shouldn’t be approached any different than any other public Wi-Fi connection. If you aren’t careful, you could expose your computer to others on the flight, just like in the airport or at a hotel (my column on public Wi-Fi safety is posted here.)
Be very mindful that those in the row behind you (or lots of folks if you are seated in the aisle seat), can easily see through the gaps in the seats to your screen. This means you should avoid typing in any sensitive information or browsing Web sites 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 it before your flight for the best results).
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