The conventional wisdom has been that business fliers don't really care about airborne WiFi, and so the recent scramble by airlines to install in-flight wireless may be a waste of time.
But a recent study suggests exactly the opposite: that business travelers would change their travel plans considerably to be online in the air. The WiFi Alliance commissioned a study by Wakefield Research, as reported in The New York Times, and 76 percent of those surveyed said they would pick an airline based on WiFi. More than half would move a trip by a day to get on a WiFi-equipped plane.
Looking at the original press release, it was unclear whether the study touched on the no-no area of in-flight VoIP calls. Upon investigation, the Alliance did not ask about VoIP in the study, so we don't really know what those polled might have said.
My own informal poll via Twitter had a very small sample size (20 votes), but 45 percent said “Yes, it would be great” to send and receive VoIP calls on planes; 20 percent were not sure; and 25 percent answered, “No, and I don't want anyone else doing it either.”
Many airlines disable VoIP based on supposed safety concerns or the fear that other flyers would rather not listen to people yakking via PC or WiFi-enabled smartphones. But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has no ban on it, and some industry watchers, including Barbara Esbin of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, have argued that the airlines might not have the right to prohibit VoIP, since they are acting as broadband ISPs, and ISPs don't have the right to block services like Skype based on court rulings on "federal Internet policy.”
The oddball factor in thinking about airlines as broadband service providers is physical proximity on the planes. Flyers are sitting next to each other in a closed and already noisy environment, so the addition of telephone chatter may seem like an unwanted nuisance to many. But on a purely technological level, American Airlines' desire to block a VoIP call to my PC while in flight is no different from Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) or Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) blocking peer-to-peer applications, or slowing down the routing of TCP/IP packets from some services while allowing others faster transmission seeds. This preferential treatment is contrary to the government's Internet policies.
It's clear that there is going to be a showdown in the skies as clever travelers, like my pal Andy Abramson, figure out ways to run around WiFi blockage of VoIP.
In Andy's case, he started a conversation with a friend who was traveling on American Airlines using SightSpeed, the video chat service. Aircell Inc. , the wireless service provider for American, cut them off after a few minutes, presumably by packet sniffing and explicitly blocking SightSpeed transmissions.
Andy responded by using Stuart Henshall's Phweet, a VoIP callback service that relies on Adobe Flash technology. This worked, because, as Andy points out, Aircell can't very well block all Flash activity just to block possible VoIP.
To reiterate: If Esbin is right, American Airlines and other airlines -- in their dual role as broadband ISPs -- might be running afoul of U.S. government Internet policies by blocking specific applications' traffic.
Who knows, the first airline to openly permit in-air VoIP calls might wind up with as big a windfall as JetBlue had for its recent All-You-Can-Jet promotion.
— Stowe Boyd is an expert on social tools and their impact on business, media, and society. He is based in San Francisco.