I’m not exactly a corporate jet setter (although the past couple months would attest otherwise) but I’ve see the inside of a plane enough times to know the law of the land. For me I spend the majority of my time buried in a book, right now its the Wheel of Time series, as I don’t really get a chance to read for pleasure at any other time. For long haul flights I’ll usually have my laptop in tow as well although lately I’ve left that in the checked baggage, mostly because the in flight entertainment systems have gotten a lot better. Still I’ve had the pleasure of being on some flights that offer in flight wireless and whilst its usability was on the low side it was an apt demonstration of how far aviation technology has come, and where it was heading.
Rewind back a decade or so and the idea of allowing radio transmitting devices to operate on flights was akin to wanting to make the plane crash. The stance of the various aviation bodies was easy to understand however: they were simply unable to test all of the available transmitting devices with their aircraft to ensure that no interference was possible and thus had to ban them all outright. Their relenting on wireless networking was due in a large part to the rigorous specifications of 802.11a/g/n which include transmission power limits as well as their frequencies being well outside of any that aircraft use for necessary functions. Of course not every device strictly adheres to it but there’s little to be gained from juicing up the power levels on your wireless, especially if it’s running on a battery.
However the use of these systems is usually restricted to after take off through until the plane is making its final approaches for landing. Whilst I’ve heard a lot of people say that this was due to the interference I thought the reasoning was far more simple, it was to keep you aware during the most risky points of flight: take off and landing. Of course my theory falls apart in the face of reality as I’ve not once been told to put my book away during these times, even when they’re doing the safety demonstration, but have been told on numerous occasions that my laptop should be put away until I’m told it’s allowed again.
Recent announcements from the Federal Aviation Authority in the USA however show that the rules against electronic devices are slowly being changed to allow more broad use cases with them now allowing use of electronic devices during take off and landing. They’re still limiting the use of wireless to the in flight system (although whether the 10,000ft restriction is still in effect isn’t something I could ascertain) and about and the outright band on all other transmission devices remains in effect. It might surprise you to find out that I actually agree with the latter restriction but not for the sake of the airlines however, it’s for those poor cell towers.
You see when you’re on the ground your mobile phone has a finite transmission range that’s limited primarily by the numerous things that get in the signals way as it travels from the cell tower to you. As a consequence of this you’re likely only ever hitting a handful of different towers, something which they deal with easily through hand-offs between each other. However when you’re in a plane those obstructions are no longer in your way and suddenly you’re effectively able to hit dozens of towers all at the same time. This, in effect, is like a small denial of service attack and they’re simply not designed to handle it. The best way to combat this would be to use some form of picocell on the plane itself, something which I had heard was in development a long time ago but can’t find any links to support now. Still for the short term this is unlikely to change unless the telecommunications companies think its worth their while to support it and the FAA agrees to change the rules.
Personally though I’m far more interested in technology that makes those in flight wireless systems more usuable like the new Ground to Orbit systems that GoGo wireless has been testing. Whilst the current 10Mbps of bandwidth might be enough for the odd Tweet or Facebook post it’s rarely usable for anything else, especially when there’s a few people online at the same time. Of course some also take solace in the fact that they’re incommunicado for the duration of the flight, something which I don’t quite mind myself.