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Row 44 Flies Its Wi-Fi (Video Included)

Conveniently, surprisingly, I was flying from LAX to New York's JFK the very first day Gogo's wireless in-flight service launched on American Airlines. I had a lovely video chat, watched some YouTube, downloaded one of our videos, and instant messaged (some of it at the same time) for almost five hours. Everything worked perfectly. And I haven't used it since. Yet I was still excited to talk to Row 44, which is in trials with Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.
Conveniently, surprisingly, I was flying from LAX to New York's JFK the very first day Gogo's wireless in-flight service launched on American Airlines. I had a lovely video chat, watched some YouTube, downloaded one of our videos, and instant messaged (some of it at the same time) for almost five hours. Everything worked perfectly. And I haven't used it since. Yet I was still excited to talk to Row 44, which is in trials with Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.Here's our video discussion with Row 44:

Row 44 is hardly a startup. It's been in business for the past five years, doing what I'm not exactly sure; a take-off delay? Apropos. There are two Southwest aircraft offering free in-flight wireless, with two more on the way; and two on Alaska Airlines. Where American Airlines and Gogo have teamed up largely on coast-to-coast flights, Southwest is offering its trial from LA to San Francisco -- barely enough time to run a port scan -- among other routes. Wider rollout depends on how quickly the company can produce all of the equipment, Row 44 CEO John Guidon told me.

Speaking of which, it's all pretty standard fare, he says; just simple hotspot technology -- enough for decent bandwidth and plane-wide coverage -- plus a server, modem, and power amplifier which boosts the traffic toward geostationary satellites (KUFS that cover the Earth), then back down to Earth (well, Las Vegas . . . so, close enough) and off to its ISP. Theoretically, then, Row 44 could help airlines cover passenger wireless needs internationally, whereas other in-flight wireless companies are limited to Earth masses because they are not using these satellites, at least according to Row 44.

Row 44 has seen usage average 20%, which is higher than it expected, but this may be the result of making the trial free. My own anecdotal observation is that it's more like 10% on American Airlines flights.

I was surprised at first to see these services, having been bombarded over loudspeaker blasts by flight attendants warning against the use of wireless devices, but Guidon says that the FAA has approved and that tests have shown that Wi-Fi signals don't interfere with anything. The real restriction is below 10,000 feet, where most navigational issues arise. Guidon calls the interference issue "an illusion."

The FCC will not allow the use of cell phones, of course, and this is something many people are trying to fight, because God knows we wouldn't want to deprive the kings of business the ability to be overheard flaunting their mightiness in a cramped metal tunnel. Guidon tells me that some European flights do allow cell phone use (note to self: take the train in Europe from now on).

I suppose it's a personal choice, but I've been in the habit of saving work -- the kind of work that can only be done without the interruptions from TweetDeck or IM chime or e-mail -- just for doing on the airplane, and I normally mix in a few book chapters and a newspaper (the kind you hold in your hands).

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad these services exist, and I'll use them when I have to; but for now, it's a little sad to see the cabin evolve from a gathering of forced Luddites to a potential Tweetup spot.

There is still much to be done, especially to stop those of us who are tempted to abuse the system as if we were at our desktops on gigabit networks, connected out the back over a few T3s. Row 44 claims it does deep packet inspection, both on the ground and on the plane, but also admits that it can't be flawless. I'm sure those Southwest flight attendants will find some clever way to deal with the miscreants, like "accidentally" spilling coffee on keyboards. Or maybe making this announcement: "Would the gentleman surfing smut in seat 14D like to share with the rest of the class?"

(Funny story: On a recent flight to Oakland out of Orange County airport -- where planes are required to make aggressively steep takeoffs because of noise-abatement laws -- while hurtling down the runway, the flight attendant announced that there wasn't enough time for the regular peanut service, so he would be providing a special, fast version. As the plane took off, he tossed his basket of peanuts out and let them slide, with gravity, down the aisle and asked us to reach out and help ourselves and to grab some for our neighbors in the middle and on the window as well. When that was done, he announced that he would now start the drink service.)