The growing trend in communications, as we all know, whether personal or business, is toward mobility. Mobile handsets (including those with WiFi connectivity options) are being introduced regularly that challenge the limits of carrier networks with applications and features, laptop sales outnumber desktop PCs, and the mobile broadband market it thriving. And of course there's the iPod Touch, which offers purely WiFi connectivity. What it all means is that users are expecting to be able to connect to network services anywhere, at any time, on any device -- there's the old catchphrase that was used to promote UC from the very beginning.
Those connectivity options now include in-flight WiFi, which has already been introduced on many flights by American Airlines
, and United Airlines is also reportedly readying to introduce the service.
Now, Southwest Airlines is preparing to join that group, as it test its new aircraft-to-satellite technology on one plane, with three additional planes on track to be outfitted next month. According to the airline, travelers will be able to use the service at no cost using their choice of WiFi-enabled devices during the test period.
Southwest is a low-cost airline, so the question now is whether they will charge for the service once it receives FCC approval -- and if so, how much. Currently, it boasts the mantra that, "At Southwest Airlines, fees don't fly," and they don't charge for the first two checked bags (within size and weight limits) or ticket changes. It will be interesting to see if that holds true with the WiFi service.
Still, what the new service means is that travelers will be able to stay in contact and continue to work on flights. Obviously, the transmission rates won't match what we're used to at home or in the office, but, at least on American, Greg Galitzine tells me the speed is surprisingly good. Of course, that may be a result of AA charging for its service, which likely dissuades at least some potential users from connecting.
The question is, is there really a demand for in-flight WiFi? Well, if you rely on email as your primary means of communication in a busy work environment, it is without a benefit to be able to stay on top of those emails while in transit. I'm not sure of the viability of more bandwidth-intensive applications, but those, too, will be usable as the technology evolves. If nothing else, Southwest is making its case to travelers who might otherwise pay a higher fare on other airlines without WiFi once it rolls out the service on a wider scale.