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Hallelujah: U.S. Airlines to Offer Wi-Fi

As reported by Scott McCartney in today’s Wall Street Journal, U.S. airlines will begin offering wireless Internet access within a year. VOIP calls will be prohibited for now; but airborne phone use may well become a reality one day. Here are the salient details:

AirCell will install equipment on airliners that will act as a WiFi hotspot in the cabin and connect to laptop computers and devices like BlackBerrys that have WiFi chips. In all, it will cost about $100,000 to outfit a plane with less than 100 pounds of equipment, and the work can be done overnight by airline maintenance workers, AirCell says.

What makes the service particularly attractive to airlines is that they will share revenue with AirCell. The service will cost about the same as existing WiFi offerings. Mr. Blumenstein says it will charge no more than $10 a day to passengers. It will also offer discounted options for customers and tie into existing service programs like T-Mobile, iPass and Boingo. Speeds will be equivalent to WiFi service on the ground.

AirCell will block voice calls over the Internet with services like Skype — except for pilots, flight attendants and air marshals, who will be allowed to talk to people on the ground for scheduling, safety and security issues.

How will Internet access change airline travel? You would expect to see a bump in productivity for certain types of workers. Bloggers, for instance, can now offer live descriptions of the Grand Canyon from 35,000 feet. If big news happens on the ground during your flight, expect it to travel fast through the cabin.

I for one am all in favor of airline Internet access; but I am just as resolutely not in favor of airline phone chatter. And so, while the former won’t necessarily lead to the latter, I fear that it probably will.

Then again, it’s hard to predict what will happen in this realm. As I blogged here earlier, the Connexion by Boeing service, which offered Internet access on various international flights, shut down last year due to lack of business.