Air Canada set to offer WiFi access on North American flights

Come 2011, the only places you won’t be able to access Wi-Fi is 20,000 leagues under the sea and the room in your house that is furthest from the router (why is that always the way?).

Because starting in mid-2011, Air Canada flights will be offering wireless Internet access to passengers on flights in Canada and the U.S. For around $10 per flight, you can get access for either a smartphone or a laptop on your trip. SkySurf will be the company to provide this service to Canadians, as well as Americans on flights through Canada.

From The Globe and Mail:

Plans “are moving forward,” said Raed Almasri, president of SkySurf.

“People are connected everywhere – in the house, in the car, to our iPhones – and there has only been one area of Canada out of connection and that is flight. The need is there for the business traveller. It is a no-brainer,” he said.

Mr. Almasri said SkySurf will collaborate with U.S. in-flight WiFi provider Aircell LLC, whose Gogo Internet technology is already being used in more than 1,000 commercial aircraft in eight U.S. airlines, two out of three aircraft flying in the U.S. fleet.

SkySurf won the Canadian air-to-ground wireless radio spectrum licence auction from Industry Canada in May, 2009, and reportedly paid more than $5.1-million for the licences. The company plans to use existing mobile cellphone towers to relay WiFi connections.

“We’re starting off with a regional network, over high-density traffic areas, all the way from Windsor to, say, Quebec City,” Mr. Almasri said. “Then to the next high-traffic area, which is Vancouver-Calgary-Edmonton, and then slowly moving out from there.”

It seems that Manitoba and Saskatchewan will be the only two provinces that won’t receive this service. This means that even at 40,000 feet, there is nothing to do between Calgary and Toronto.

SkySurf’s acquisition of the rights to provide this service is the result of a bidding process opened up by the federal government in May of 2009. SkySurf beat out MTS Allstream and Wair Inc. for the newly opened space on the wireless spectrum, and it looks like a bid by Aircell’s Gogo never really gained traction.

So, what’s the fine print going to look like for this operation? If it’s anything like the service Gogo provides, it’ll be pretty unrestricted. But as PC Mag reported, there’s one thing that will be verboten: VoIP.

Voice is the big no-no on Gogo.

“The general consensus among the flying public is, they don’t like a guy next to them talking for four hours,” says [Aircell CTO Joe] Cruz. “The airlines agree. It’s about convenience for operators and passengers.”

Gogo’s voice blocking is proprietary, and limited to just that. Skype software can still be used to send IMs, and even do video conferencing. When asked if someone could video conference and communicate using sign language, Cruz laughed and said it was possible. Talk, however, and the network restricts packets, garbling or eventually dropping the VoIP call.

This makes a lot of sense. If you thought the crying baby was bad, wait until you hear the jerk-off businessman gab for your entire trip to New York.

It seems like such an about face from the airline experience we know today. You know, when the Stewardess Inquisition would come by to make sure that you didn’t have so much as a Game Boy running during takeoff. I don’t know what airplanes are doing differently that makes sources of radio frequency interference suddenly okay, but here’s hoping they’ve done their homework, and this sort of technology is safe.