Australia’s missing in-flight link

Virgin Australia’s latest wi-fi initiative may stream content straight into the laptops of travellers but it still doesn’t connect them to the internet.

In-flight internet services look set to take off next year with Air China, Cathay Pacific, United Airlines, and Emirates all planning to help passengers get connected.

But if you think yesterday’s in-flight wi-fi announcement by Virgin Australia means Australians will soon get the same privilege, you’re in for a disappointment.

Virgin says it is working with Lufthansa Systems to deliver movies, television programs and music via wi-fi to personal hand-held devices or laptops from mid-2012.

But a spokesperson for Virgin told Technology Spectator while customers are interested in an internet service and the group is looking into it, it’s not part of the new in-flight entertainment service.

Virgin says a growing number of passengers are carrying their own devices, and the wi-fi entertainment system will allow the company to remain at the forefront of technology - at the forefront minus the actual internet we're all used to having while on the move it would seem.

Ironically, our initial request to Virgin Australia was met with a response that the public relations person we needed to speak to was on a plane and therefore couldn’t be contacted.

In-flight internet would clearly help boost worker productivity, and while some may argue air travel is a good time to disconnect, being able to work while in the air is now commonplace for Americans travelling the common New York to Los Angeles route.

The A380’s in use by Qantas are capable of being connected to internet services, and indeed Singapore Airlines has already moved to offer it on selected planes.

America’s GoGo is the industry leader, transmitting to planes via a grid of land-based mobile phone towers, something that’s not viable in Australia right now given our vast tracts of uninhabited land.

But with the National Broadband Network prompting more satellite services for regional Australia, perhaps this could be about to change?

Satellite solutions are already in place in some parts of the world, but others have been put off by Boeing’s failed Connexion system that it was reported to have spent $1 billion on before pulling the plug.

However, that initiative was undertaken in 2006, and since then internet speeds, smartphones and tablets have all made us more willing to be connected all of the time.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is the body responsible for regulating in-flight mobile communications, and last year approved the use of onboard “picocells” for GPRS data and SMS. Telstra argued a better solution would be to simply allow airlines to provide link between their planes and the ground, so passengers can use their existing mobile network.

To date there’s been a fair bit of finger pointing between the airlines, regulators and telcos on why in-flight internet is yet to emerge in Australia. This seems destined to fade away as airlines look for a competitive edge on competitive domestic routes, and consumers become used to being connected anytime, anywhere.