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Summary:

Ever since Andy Abramson figured out a way to make VoIP calls over GoGo, the in-flight broadband system from Aircell, there has been a flurry of activity leading to the banning of some of the services he used. “The carriers and Aircell have taken a position on this because we don’t want people talking on the plane,” a company spokesperson told me. But where does it all stop?

Ever since my troublemaker friend Andy Abramson figured out a way to make VoIP calls over GoGo, the in-flight broadband system from Aircell, there has been a flurry of activity leading to the banning of some of the services Andy used.

Andy’s experiment came close on the heels of GoGo’s commercial launch on Aug. 20 on American Airlines. When I asked an Aircell spokeswoman if this was mostly an issue of limited bandwidth availability — after all, the Aircell system does rely on a cellular network — she said that wasn’t the case. “The carriers and Aircell have taken a position on this because we don’t want people talking on the plane.” The company also sent me an official statement reiterating its anti-VoIP position:

“It is against American’s policy and Gogo’s terms of service to use VoIP. Aircell has multiple protocols and practices in place to prevent the use of VoIP. Obviously, it is extremely difficult to stop every instance of VoIP but Aircell is monitoring and working constantly to enforce American’s policy and Gogo’s terms of service.”

The spokeswoman said that the company is not blocking any content, but at the same time “we are doing our best to make VoIP services unusable.” Aircell can block the pure-play VoIP services because VoIP calls typically use a protocol called UDP. Dan York, CTO of Voxeo, has a great post explaining how VoIP works. In comparison, it is much harder to block calls that use the web and TCP protocol. York explains that is why Andy was able to make a call using a web-based system like Phweet. It didn’t use UDP.

Does that mean they will block all web services that use Flash for voice connections? Will this include blocking IMO.IM or Tokbox? What about voice chat on other social networks? Where does it all stop? My friend Aswath thinks that Aircell’s approach will be very much like YouTube, where a video that infringes copyright is disabled if someone brings it to the company’s attention. The first victim of that policy might be TringMe, a VoIP provider with a push-to-talk-type service that uses Flash. An Aircell spokeswoman told me that you can see the TringMe web site but can’t really use the service.

What that means is that Flash objects would work in a web browser, but it will be hard to make and receive calls. “Aircell’s network-monitoring software can allow those one-way streams of network traffic while blocking streams of traffic that fit the profile of two-way VoIP conversations,” York wrote in a private email. Such one-way Flash traffic could include streaming videos and even music.

  1. Stacey Higginbotham Tuesday, August 26, 2008

    I think they could allow VoIP calls on flights. Fewer people use VoIP so I expect to overhear fewer calls, and might want to listen in on a some of them anyhow:)

    I bring a two-year-old on some flights, which others could find equally annoying, but for the most part engine noise and distance keeps conversations more than a seat or two away pretty muffled. So really, cutting off VoIP calls on a flight seems to be pretty extreme. If it became widespread it might become irritating, but as long as people didn’t expect the ability to conduct a silent, focused conversation on a flight and tried to enforce that among seat mates, then let them VoIP.

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  2. I imagine it will take about four seconds for people who really need to use VOIP on a flight to figure out a way to proxy around it.

    Dear mindless carriers: internet that blocks services you don’t like isn’t really the internet.

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  3. “Troublemaker.” Coming from you, I feel very honored.

    But all I did was open a browser and supply a URL to Joanna :-)

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  4. As someone who spends a lot of time on planes I think they should block VOIP. If you need to use the internet to communicate with someone use an instant messenger, email or a text-messaging service.

    Stacey you mention the engine noise will drown out the calls and that it’ll only be annoying if it’s abused? People will talk louder due to the engine noise, and of course it will be abused.

    Nobody wants to listen to be cooped up in a plane listening to your end of a conversation. It’s better off banned and if people circumvent the blocks flight attendants should confiscate their computers.

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  5. Proxies.

    They might as well try blocking the color red.

    Trying to “block” something on the Internet is a pointless and futile exercise.

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  6. Jesse Kopelman Tuesday, August 26, 2008

    When I hear stuff like this I always wonder if this isn’t really about wanting to sell VoIP as a separate service. I’m pretty sure American Airlines wasn’t against phone calls on their planes back when they had those AirFons integrated into the seat backs and were getting a cut of the ridiculous per minute charges. Aircell themselves started as a competitor to that service, but only managed to get on small regional planes.

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  7. Go look at the FCC comments from a couple of years back when they started about talking about in-flight cell phone calls. This is not a TECHNOLOGY issue, this is a SOCIAL issue.

    People are crammed three abreast and tighter in economy class. The vast majority of airplane travelers DO NOT want to hear their seatmates yakking on a phone – be it a cell phone, a VoIP phone, or the mid-back seat phone that nobody wanted to pay $3/minute to call someone in mid-air.

    Just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do something.

    Nor do you have any rights, other than what the airlines permit. Their service, their rules.

    You may be PERMITTED (and I suspect this is how it will end up) to VoIP in business and first class, since your conversation might take place more than two fingers length from your seatmate. It would be another “perk” they could throw in on business and first.

    Go ahead, argue with the flight attendant when they ask you to stop yakking into your laptop in the middle seat when your seatmates hit the call button for relief. Please. He or she is already working one of the more difficult jobs today. And I’ve heard it’s really really difficult to get off of TSA watch list once you land on it.

    “Oh, I’d never do that…” so you say…

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  8. [...] #2: As expected, GigaOm is now reporting that Aircell is blocking the Tringme VoIP client used by Phweet. So how did Andy Abramson make a [...]

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  9. [...] this crap about using VoIP on planes, blocking the traffic, working around it, and more blocking is just plane silly. While I don’t doubt that phone [...]

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  10. [...] more:- Dan York’s latest blog on Aircell VoIP blocking – Aircell: VoIP will be muted, reports [...]

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