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Aircell: On U.S. Planes, VoIP Will Be Muted

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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.

20 Responses to “Aircell: On U.S. Planes, VoIP Will Be Muted”

  1. Tyler Ellis

    The internet was partially built for the purposes of ensuring communications during a nuclear war and they think that they can control it during peace time. I’ve tunnelled every which way, over tcp, using udp, even icmp, there is no way that they can control it. I swear if I have tunnel through aim/icq I”ll do it. The problem aircell is having is that the carriers don’t want peeps using voip over their network Someone really needs to sue the shit out of these cell phone companys for ant-trust or interference with a business, this is like someone owning a toll road who finds out you may use another toll road on the way home so they come to your car and drain out your gasoline so you have just enough juice to get back to their bridge.

  2. People talking on the phone on a plane, annoying? Very I want no part, especially in their “mobile phone voice” aka yelling so they can hear themselves.

    However I do agree with the commentary as we all like to test the rules and those of us in the “tinkering” community like to see if we can get away with it or “beat the system”.

    I don’t have an issue if some get away with it. I mean not every business traveller or person who uses a computer is going to know how or care to try and use voip while in the air. Telling someone how to do it, making a reference to it – all fine. Thumbing your nose in their face (providers and passengers) is probably going to ruin the fun for the rest of us.

    Hey if you did it great, if we want to figure it out maybe you help us do it, but in the mean time “let sleeping dogs lie” don’t ruin it for everyone. Ifyou are annoying your seat mate the whole thing will probably police itself, unlike the kid crying in row 19B – he can’t help it, you can!

  3. You know…Korea has repeatedly tried to allow both cellular and voip services on its planes but due to the inane policies of the US FCC and airlines.

    Alot of you may complain now but I remember people were just as sensitive about phone usage in the street when mobile phones came out. Bad, good…does it matter?

    Insane and inane? yes. I see the same thing here

    THe nations that wholeheartedly adopted and promoted usage of mobile technology anywhere like Korea and Japan have essentially leapfrogged the US in many different ways…but mostly socially in terms of emerging technologies. They adapt way easier and thus have a continual competitive edge.

    Cheerfully most of the companies and partners I work with aren’t American and don’t have these luddite tendencies so…

  4. “We don’t want people talking on the plane” Ummm… huh? I can just hear the flight attendants now, “All you people there in the passenger section, sit down and shut up!!!” OK, so, they don’t want people talking on the PHONE on the plane. OK, sure. Oops! So, why do they put phones in the back of seats on some flights? You know, the ones that almost no one uses because they are insanely expensive? Yeahhhhh… Who do they think they are fooling?

  5. Two other possibilities I point out over at *ahem* FierceVoIP…

    1) If you violate terms of service (VoIP), Gogo doesn’t have to take your credit card moving forward. and you agree to ToS when you log on, so that convenience of having cross-country internet on the plane can just go away, if Gogo/Aircell decides to pull the rug.

    So yes, please, could we have a couple of folks make in-flight VoIP calls on a regular basis, brag about it on theirs blog, and then see what happens?

    2) American Airlines doesn’t have to sell you a plane ticket, either, if you violate their guidelines.

    “Oh, that’s ridiculous.”

    No, it isn’t. If one passenger blabbing to his laptop makes a bunch of people in economy class miserable, the one passenger could lose. And the mean airlines are not afraid to do what (in this case) what the majority of the economy class cabin would support them in.

  6. The use of cellphones on planes has been approved by regulators in several countries, and a number of airlines have had trials of the technology (on-board cellphone base stations) which will no doubt turn into real services in time. So whether it’s VoIP, WiFi or cell telephony, I’m afraid that we’re going to have learn to tolerate people chit-chatting on their phones on planes. Expect people talking too loudly, with little courtesy to others, and expect them to be boastful and incredibly indiscreet, as they are today in departure lounges and on trains.

  7. Om,

    Thanks for your kind words and links to my articles on the VOIP Security Alliance (VOIPSA) blog. Just one minor point… I’m not Voxeo’s CTO but I do work for him! I work in the “Office of the CTO” and report to Voxeo CTO RJ Auburn.

    Thanks again,

    P.S. I do agree with Doug that there are larger social issues we have to sort out with the idea of using VoIP (or any other telephony technology) on planes.

  8. 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…

  9. Jesse Kopelman

    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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. Stacey Higginbotham

    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.