5031It's happened. Air-to-ground data communications services come to US commercial airplanes.

JetBlue has deployed with the help of RIM and Yahoo! an IM and mobile email services on (one) commercial airplane. Probably most importantly – it's free!

WiFi-equipped laptop users and users of BlackBerry WiFi-enabled phones can login to a special Yahoo! email portal that includes Yahoo!Messenger. So, IM and email are available in the air. 

Some would think this is a retrograde step because the plane is the last bastion of freedom for frequent and busy travelers. Well, they do have to login to Yahoo! to activate the service…

… so these isolationists can stay tuned out for the duration and since forwarding email to yahoo! would probably be in contradiction of corporate security policy, they can stay that way. However, these service features are not likely to stay at email portal only. 

There are a few issues that no doubt, JetBlue is concerned with:

  • Security of laptops with WiFi on. Folks at airports and hotels often masquerade as APs. This temptation will only grow with a large, captive population of laptops on an airplane. In some respects this is always a problem with WiFi, but airplanes are unusual. Users don't linger for long periods in one place like they will on an airplane. So, keeping the service options to browsing-style IM and email is a safe bet for now, except passwords and IDs will be passed in the air on the plane.
  • In-air bandwidth limits. Laptops are the predominant PC formfactor for business people. Performance will suck because the limited bandwidth on a single AP will be shared with all users asking for service. Even with very fast WAN circuits, having 20 users (roughly 12% of passengers on an A320 at maximum capacity) asking for bandwidth will crawl.
  • Don't forget that the spectrum connecting the plane to the ground, presumably some kind of satellite service, will be a skinny pipe because of the cost, further limiting satisfaction potential.

So, it's no wonder that the service is limited to an email portal with IM.

 I do fly JetBlue from time to time so I'll keep you posted if I ever get on BetaBlue.

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