Internet in the Air

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I used to hate taking long day flights. If I had to spend 12 hours in the air from New York to Tokyo, or Zurich to Bangkok, or Tel Aviv to Newark, I preferred overnight flights. Even since the advent of on-demand entertainment, personal video screens and portable devices like the iPad, those flights just seemed to last forever.

So most of the time I would fly overnight. However, the timing didn't always work out, and overnight flights tend to be significantly more expensive than all-day flights, often much greater than 50% more. Throw in the premium paid by we last-minute business travelers, and the choice can be a hard one.

In the last year, one factor has changed all of that: airplane Internet. While I hardly ever will love being on a plane all day (although I have yet to try the Emirates Suite) the ability to keep in touch with the world, and get real work done, changes the equation significantly. In some ways, it is better than working from an office or home. Since the bandwidth is too slow to support audio or video, I find it removes many distractions.

While the prices vary between carriers, on the most recent all-day flights I have taken on United (Tel Aviv to Newark and Frankfurt to San Francisco), I paid $16.99 for Internet access for the entire flight.

A brief history of mobile Internet access:

  • When I started out in business 22 years ago, Internet was available at universities or businesses on a direct and expensive connection, or via a dial-up modem over a landline with, at best, 56kbps speeds.
  • The first mobile Internet protocol, GPRS, rode over second generation mobile voice networks. It started with 9.6kbps eventually maxing out at 64kbps, not much faster than your home modem.
  • GPRS morphed into Enhanced GPRS (or EDGE), which offered up to 4x faster speeds, but still painfully slow compared to today's mobile, let alone landlines. The first iPhone, launched in 2007, only supported EDGE speeds. That limitation was the subject of much derision, as 3G already was fairly widely available.
  • Since then mobile Internet has evolved into 3G and then LTE, now available pretty much everywhere in the developed world. Depending on the particular variant, the theoretical speeds are hundreds of Mbps. 5G may reach 1Gbps on your mobile phone.

Over a period of close to 20 years, then, we have gone from 56kbps home access and no mobile Internet to 30Mbps regularly available and on the cusp of an order of magnitude faster.

A decade ago, Internet access while on a 747 flying at 900 km/h at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic ocean was impossible. Then a few companies - both those that had previously sold in-flight phone service like Airfone and newer companies like Gogo - began offering inflight Internet at painfully slow speeds and high costs.

In 2016, I can get 300 kbps with reasonable reliability for $17 for 12 hours on United. Admittedly, Asian and European airlines tend to be more expensive. It isn't too surprising, given that many continental European business lounges still charge for Internet access, and advance seat selection, even online, costs a premium.

Economists (the smart ones, anyways) point out that macroeconomic trends are nothing more than millions of individuals making individual choices. It is impossible to separate out how an economy as a whole operates from what individuals do. If regulations or conditions encourage me to behave a certain way, then no amount of theorizing about "macroeconomic trends" will not matter a whit. It never ceases to amaze me how surprised policymakers are by this reality.

Airlines price their tickets around demand for different routes. The growth of Internet in the air, especially as quality improves, may turn day flights from dead zones or watch-the-movie windows into the equivalent of airborne coffee shops. That, in turn, may change the willingness of passengers to accept lower-priced daytime flights, which may change flight schedules and pricing.

All because I can read my email somewhere over the Pacific...