Update on the Aircell / VoIP-on-a-plane prohibition – and an Aircell response

After my two posts on Tuesday explaining how Aircell was probably blocking VoIP and then why the Phweet/Tringme worked (temporarily), there have been a number of other posts that should be mentioned here:

  • Om Malik posted “Aircell: On U.S. Planes, VoIP Will Be Muted” where he relayed a conversation with an Aircell spokesperson that included this classic quote: “we are doing our best to make VoIP services unusable.” Some of the comments on Om’s post are quite good, too.

    Om also relayed that Aircell indicated that Phweet/TringMe will no longer work on their service. As I expected, they blocked the traffic pattern of the service. Aircell will engage in the Whack-A-VoIP-Call and over time they will build up an increasing number of patterns that they will block.

  • The folks at Tringme posted “TringMe Conversations (Phweet, Aircell & TringMe Traffic Patterns)” which includes this interesting part (my emphasis added):

    TringMe uses TCP and it was a conscious decision. We developed a sophisticated congestion control and packet handling algorithms which allowed us to achieve the advantage of UDP over a reliable TCP connection at good extent. As Dan and others would have noticed, we send traffic in varying small and larger blocks depending on network conditions which is way different from a typical VoIP traffic patterns. This kind of pattern was not meant to break any VoIP blockages, however the goal was to get the best quality even on slower or congested links & we were able to meet the design goal successfully.

    What is interesting here to me is that they do vary the pattern that they use. While this certainly could happen with other VoIP solutions depending upon codec selection, etc., I haven’t seen much variance in actual deployments (outside of Skype, which does vary according to how it is punching through a firewall). The TringMe folks go on to talk about the advantages of TCP (with of course a bit of a sales pitch for why you might want to use their client).

  • Dean Foust at Business Week posted “You CAN make VOIP calls on airplanes. Joy.” expressing his curmudgeonly view that VoIP-on-a-plane was not at all desirable. (As I said in P.S. to my 2nd post, I definitely think there are larger societal/cultural issues that we need to work out about whether or not VoIP on a plane is something we really want to have.)

  • Irwin Lazar posted on the Enterprise 2.0 blog “American Airlines Aircell Reaction” and made the comment:

    Dan York suspects that this will lead to an arms race as Aircell fights VOIP users. I think he’s right, but I don’t think more than a handful of users will care enough to fight the battle.

    To a certain degree, Irwin’s probably right. Some small % of users will actually care enough to try to find ways around Aircell’s blocking. Most folks won’t and will just accept that they can’t use VoIP. Irwin also has some good comments about the impacts of VoIP availability on virtual workers and eliminating the “escape from the office” time that flyers have today. (Some people will want to be “always-on” while others will not.)

  • Andy Abramson posted “From the Department of Stupid Is as Stupid Does-Aircell” pointing out that Aircell sells VoIP solutions for airplanes and thus it is a bit strange to see them also saying “No VoIP on planes!” (Although their position is that this is the policy of their customer, American Airlines.)


Speaking of Aircell’s position, I did receive a nice note from someone with Aircell’s PR firm that stated this:

Thanks for your informative posts about Aircell and the use of VoIP on Gogo today – good reading. We’ve been asked by many outlets for an official response to the VoIP attempts on Gogo so in case you are interested, here is Aircell’s official statement:

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.

To a certain degree, this statement reminds you that at the end of the day Aircell is simply the service provider implementing the policy of the customer. So it’s really the American Airlines policy that has the VoIP prohibition….. but….

I could go along with that except for one minor little detail. The
Gogo Terms of Service very clearly state the VoIP prohibition. The ToS also states very clearly that the Gogo Inflight Internet Service is provided by Aircell LLC. There is no mention at all in the ToS of American Airlines. Is this Gogo service provided ONLY to American Airlines? Was it created for only American Airlines? Will it not be sold to any other airline?

If it was only created for American Airlines and will only be used by American flights, then sure, the Gogo ToS line up with the customer’s policy. If this is intended to be a generic service and American just happens to be the first customer then I think it’s a bit unfair for Aircell only to be pointing to American. It is, after all, Aircell’s ToS.

But perhaps that’s getting too far down in the semantic weeds…

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