Wi-Fi internet at 30,000 feet: Good or bad?

February 4, 2008 8:02:48 PM PST
Sitting in an airliner is one of the most boring times of our lives. So what if airlines were to introduce in-flight Wi-Fi? It is about to happen we're not convinced it's such a good idea. It sounds good when you are thinking about just yourself, but having entire plane online could be a nuisance.

Talk to those who fly and the reaction is positive, but not so fast. Think about the guy standing next to you on the street using his cell phone. Take a moment to reflect on the rowdiness of sports fans. With internet TV, the big game could be watched at 30,000 feet. With internet phone services, a conversation could last an entire flight.

"That would actually be invasive, I think it's just too much," says one person we talked to.

Cnet.com's Brian Cooley has been giving this a lot of thought, and that's backed up with his broad knowledge of technical issues.

"This potentially opens the door to a horrible specter of in-flight chatting, The airlines want this for a couple of reasons. One is a differentiator. It will get someone to buy a ticket on this airline that has connectivity versus one that doesn't because it helps productivity and it kills boredom -- it's just cool," says Cooley

Brian acknowledges that there are issues, like inappropriate video being viewed next to a child, or trying to sleep on board a flight when others are online chatting it up, or seat mates peeking at your screen. So, can this work in the real world?

In San Francisco, we conducted our own tests at our laboratory -- the Grove Cafe on Chestnut Street. Customers have been surfing the internet there since 1999. It is the norm. One guy looked out of place because he was reading a newspaper.

"I have had one or two incidents in the Grove where people complain about other people having inappropriate material on, but over the course of years one or two is nothing. So, I don't think it would be a big issue," says Derek Suring, Grove Café, co-owner.

As for in-flight conversations, Derek isn't worried about that either. He says that over the past few years, his customers have become better behaved.

"I'm pretty impressed that there are not many people that will sit there very loud and talk for a long time."

As for privacy, Brian says if you are surfing at 30,000 feet, you should buy a privacy screen for your computer. Straight on you can see just fine, from an angle the screen darkens and blurs.

There is also one final issue -- cost.

Airlines aren't talking about it, but Brian is.

"They are already selling those little headsets. They used to be free. The snacks we now pay for. You really think they are going to give you wireless for free? The coolest thing on the flight and that's free while the stale sandwiches are five bucks? No way."

It appears internet service will start rolling out this Spring. It will take a while before the airlines work out all the bugs and we as a society work out the etiquette.