Video Calls at 30,000 Feet

By  |  Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:21 pm

My friend John Battelle (who is, among other things, CEO of Federated Media, Technologizer’s advertising partner) was on a cross-country United plane flight equipped with Wi-Fi last night. He used iChat to do a videochat with his wife and kids, who were back at home in the Bay Area. And John got busted–by a flight attendant who told him that video calls are forbidden for security reasons.

John says that there don’t seem to be FAA rules prohibiting video calls. Which sounds logical: Once a plane has Wi-Fi, I’m not sure if if there’s anything terrorists could do with video that they couldn’t do equally effectively with other communications means, such as IM. (Besides, they’d probably ignore any rules against video calling–hey, they’re terrorists.)

But there are at least two other plausible arguments against video calling in the air. One involves the people surrounding the folks doing the calling, who might find the call intruding on their personal space. (Probably depends in part on the courtesy of the person doing the calling, but I sometimes have a hard time dealing with gabby seatmates who are simply making phone calls before takeoff or after landing.)

The other issue is bandwidth: I don’t how much speed a service like Aircell’s Gogo has to share among everybody on a flight, but it’s not infinite–and consuming video might bog things down for everybody else. (Of course, video of any sort could do that–I wonder if Gogo does anything to block, say, Hulu?)

I have a hard time living without inflight Wi-Fi these days–I’m going to use it so much on Virgin America this month that I shelled out for a month-long pass–but I could tolerate with a ban on video. (Then again, if I was sitting next to John and noticed he was chatting with his family, I wouldn’t press the Flight Attendant button and squeal on him.)

Your take?



2 Comments For This Post

  1. Glenn Fleishman Says:

    Aircell clearly uses packet shaping, so fairness shouldn’t be a concern.

    Over eight years of talking to regulators, airlines, and in-flight providers, social factors are the only reason cited. If the bandwidth/latency/jitter aren’t tuned right, it doesn’t work; but the real issue is preventing passengers from getting agitated about other passengers talking.

  2. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    They just need to make “talking” and “quiet” sections on the plane, like they used to have for smoking and non-smoking. If everybody in the front is quiet and everybody in the back is talking on a phone or video chat then everybody is happy. I would bet the quiet section will be surprisingly unpopular and over time even less popular.