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8/26/2008
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What To Expect From Airline Internet Services

As in-flight Internet services start to take off, air travelers have lots of questions about them. For example, when the bandwidth hog in 19C starts to download gargantuan files, how will that affect service quality for everyone else on the plane? Aircell CEO Jack Blumenstein, whose Gogo service already is on some American Airlines flights, tackled this question and others in an hour-long discussion yesterday.

As in-flight Internet services start to take off, air travelers have lots of questions about them. For example, when the bandwidth hog in 19C starts to download gargantuan files, how will that affect service quality for everyone else on the plane? Aircell CEO Jack Blumenstein, whose Gogo service already is on some American Airlines flights, tackled this question and others in an hour-long discussion yesterday.Gogo is proving it can perform well, delivering content with no delays, with more than 30 passengers simultaneously using it on some flights, Blumenstein told me. Gogo was designed to scale beyond what you might expect from a typical Wi-Fi hotspot, in which "signals will collide if 50 different people are working on 50 different things," he said. Aircell worked with an "innovative West Coast company" that developed technology to provide each passenger with a discrete WiFi stream. And Aircell's land-based cellular network uses compression technology to allow speedier transmission of data between the plane and the ground.

As part of the Gogo service, Aircell installs a 800-gigabyte server on each plane -- soon to be upgraded to a 1+ terabyte server -- that caches content from recently accessed Internet addresses. Since the server doesn't have to keep calling on the network to retrieve Web content already in its cache, passengers get the content all that much faster. You also can expect the airlines to offer content to passengers, such as movies and television shows, that would reside on the plane's server, he said.

Finally, Aircell "watches for bandwidth hogs, both applications and individuals," through its network monitoring service. And there will be consequences for pigging out at the bandwidth trough. "We don't know what you're doing, or how much of what you're doing, but if you're doing a lot more than what you should for fair distribution on the aircraft, we'll put you at the back of the line," Blumenstein said. Yep, that means those using too much bandwidth may see their service slow, while responsible Internet citizens shouldn't have a problem.

The consequences of over-consumption will be part of the unwritten code of societal conduct that develops as more and more people use in-flight Internet. Much of that code will be consistent with the accepted norms of society. Airlines currently don't have a problem with people reading porn magazines or watching downloaded porn movies on their PCs, Blumenstein pointed out, so why expect a problem with them viewing online porn once they have Internet access? What's more, part of a flight attendant's job is to keep passengers in line, and that would include asking an adult to shut down a Web site featuring nude women if there's a 10-year-old in the seat next to him or its obvious to other passengers.

That's just a bit of what Blumenstein and I talked about in our conversation, and should answer some of the questions readers posted to a blog I wrote Friday. Here's another interesting tidbit: based on his conversations with airlines, he expects that 2,000 flights will be equipped with Aircell Gogo by next year. I'll be writing about this and more in a news article that will be posted at informationweek.com later today.

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