Call it a case of being in the right place at the right time. I chose to fly on the Thai A380 this week when planning my trip to Bangladesh for the DC-10 retirement festivities and that just happened to coincide with the carrier’s launch of the in-flight connectivity on those aircraft. And so, after settling in and a quick meal service I opened up my laptop and put the service through its paces. More or less.
It took a few minutes for the system to link up with the satellite, as expected. At that point I was presented with the pricing options for the service. I attempted connections representing both a mobile phone and a laptop to see if there were any notable differences in the offers. And, while there were some small pricing differences, it wasn’t much. A mobile device has the option of the very low 3 megabyte allowance or the 10 megabyte plan. Laptops get 10 or 20 megabytes; all price at about $1.50/megabyte included in the base plan. In both cases the overage charges run about $2/megabyte. Those allowances are pretty low and the prices pretty high, even compared to other OnAir-powered systems. Emirates launched their similar offering in late 2011 with a 25MB package priced at $15 and I thought that was expensive at the time. Singapore Airlines has lower prices as well ($25 for 30MB) and Etihad charges based on time, not bytes consumed. Most other offerings, particularly from US-based carriers, are time-based rather than byte-based.
So, once I was able to get online, how did the service fare? Alas, that’s another place I’ve got a few complaints. I got very used to seeing something akin to this on screen:
The OnAir-powered connectivity is slow. It uses the Inmarsat SwiftBroadband L-band satellite service for the back-haul. As configured in the OnAir implementation this maxes out at 864 kbit/sec to and from the aircraft. That throughput can be limited by contention with other aircraft operating in the same spot beam and even if wholly consumed by the one plane it would still be shared amongst all the passengers. I didn’t run a formal speed test during the flight (I don’t think I could afford to given the bandwidth charges) but pretty much every site I loaded felt slow. Not 3G slow or even 2G slow. More like dial-up slow. Using the mobile website to access Twitter took 15-30 seconds to send a tweet, consuming ~100 kilobytes of my allowance in the process.
As the flight was wrapping up I decided to “splurge” with my final few bytes and load up the Yahoo homepage. It took more than a minute for the page to get to the point where it was rendered in a manner which was legible, and even then there were still bits loading in the background to fill in some of the gaps.
And then, all too quickly, my bandwidth allowance was consumed. I did have the option to pay for more access, of course, but I declined. My expense account certainly doesn’t run that deep.
I don’t want to sound like the target of one of Louis C.K.’s more infamous rants, that something I didn’t know existed 30 seconds ago is now somehow not good enough for me. Part of that comes from the fact that I have known that this sort of stuff has existed for a while now. And, while I certainly appreciate that someone has to pay for the service where it is offered, I’m struggling to come up with a way to justify the cost based on the level of service offered. Actually, I’m struggling to justify the cost at any level of service; the fact that it was so slow in addition to being so expensive was more like adding insult to injury.
Ultimately this strikes me as more akin to the satellite phone services offered on long-haul aircraft. It is there if you absolutely must have it but far too expensive for most consumers, even those who are willing to spend a decent bit of cash for access. But I cannot in good conscience come up with a scenario where regular usage at these rates makes much sense at all. And when compared to the many other providers coming online with much faster services offered at a much lower price point to the end user the viability of the OnAir L-band product becomes even more questionable. Eventually OnAir is expected to offer a Ka-band solution which should significantly increase speed and reduce per-megabyte costs but, at least for now, global coverage with such a platform is still a ways off.
- Taking the Emirates A380 OnAir connectivity for a ride
- Fly-Fi provides incredibly fast internet in the sky, most of the time
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