I’m Calling You from a Chair in the Sky
AUSTIN — Gogo, the inflight WiFi company, wanted to show off how its next-gen system lets you text and talk from the sky, so it sent its “Gogo One” private jet down to the airport here to give visiting journalists a chance to try it out.
I took them up on the offer Friday. Once aloft, I sent the only appropriate message to a friend who was also in town for SxSW:
“I’m texting you from a private jet. How are you?”
Anthony, in turn, sent the only appropriate response:
“[Bleep] off :)”
Many people react this way to the idea of airborne communication. Relaxing the ban on using phones from planes is an emotional issue. When the Federal Communications Commission proposed last year to lift the ban on the use of cellphones in planes, for in-flight texting and calling, travelers erupted in protest, expecting airplanes to devolve into dens of cacophony.
(To everyone tempted to march to the FCC’s offices, pitchforks in hand: Have you already forgotten when you could make calls from planes for $5 a minute on a GTE Airfone? Did you think that airplanes were already winged versions of Amtrak’s Quiet Car?)
While various parties and agencies mull the FCC’s proposal to lift the ban, Gogo will already work because its texting-and-calling feature — now available on its Aircell service for private planes — doesn’t rely on conventional cell service and so doesn’t need a permission slip from the feds. Instead, it routes texts and calls over a souped-up version of its existing air-to-ground data service, using the Gogo wireless connection in plane cabins to communicate with phones, and using custom apps for texting and calling on the phones themselves.
That meant I couldn’t just pick up my phone, hop onto Gogo’s WiFi and start annoying pals once airborne. Instead, I had to install a beta version of Gogo’s texting app on my Android phone and then borrow a Gogo executive’s own phone to try voice calls.
Inside the Gogo text app, sending messages back and forth worked like in any other program, although the service can’t handle multimedia messaging. (Fearless prediction: Complaining that you can’t send a picture message from a chair in the sky will be the new complaining about how slow your Internet access is from a chair in the sky.)