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December 19, 2012

Better Wi-fi on Airplanes? Maybe, But Don't Expect Prices to Drop

By Tracey E. Schelmetic, TMCnet Contributor

Remember when they first told us we could access the Internet and make phone calls on airplanes via voice over IP? Yes…we were all excited. And then reality set in and we realized that the promised service was unreliable and criminally expensive, and quite frankly we’d be better served taking a snooze or reading a magazine we grabbed in the airport (usually feeling guilty that we grabbed Us magazine instead of National Geographic or Astronomy. It’s OK…we’ve all been there.)

Aircraft company Boeing (News - Alert) may be about to make connectivity in the air a litter better. The company says it has developed an advanced method to test wireless signals in airplane cabins, making it possible for passengers cramped into a metal tube 30,000 feet off the ground for hours drown their misery in reliable and affordable connectivity on their personal electronic devices.

Boeing engineers say they have created a new process for measuring radio signal quality using what they are calling “proprietary measurement technology and analysis tools.” This will enable aeronautics engineers to more efficiently measure how strong a signal is and how far it spreads, ensuring safe yet powerful signal penetration throughout an airplane cabin, according a statement.

Interestingly, the development is an unexpected side effect from other research. Boeing engineers initially developed this new signal test method to help airlines comply with regulatory standards, but incidentally found it also helps to boost a Wi-fi signal.

It’s about time. Many of us are pretty hungry for affordable in-air connectivity. (While some of us are clearly happy about the blessedly rare wireless silence for a few hours.)

One wonders whether the airlines will enjoy the development, however, since they are increasingly reaping a ton of cash from in-flight Internet connectivity. Gogo, the first company to successfully install Internet connections on commercial airplanes, counts several U.S. carriers as its customers: Delta, American and US Airways. According to Gogo CEO Michael Small, the company’s profits grew from $37 million in 2009 to $112 million in the first six months of 2012. (This is presumably after the cut the airline takes.)

"We're now on over 1,600 commercial aviation jets, which is nearly half the U.S. fleet. We've done that in four years, which is extraordinarily fast," Small told CNN. "In just a few more years, it will be done in America."

So, will airlines and their partners want to give up all that revenue potential just because a few geeks at Boeing found a better way? Don’t hold your breath.

Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli
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