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Wi-Fi coming to international flights

By Brett Snyder, Special to CNN
November 14, 2011 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
Internet access is common on U.S. domestic flights, but it will soon also be available on longer journeys on United.
Internet access is common on U.S. domestic flights, but it will soon also be available on longer journeys on United.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • United to become first U.S. airline to provide Internet on intercontinental flights
  • Wi-Fi is already available on many domestic flights but is constrained by geography
  • United is installing satellite-based Internet on its planes, a more expensive option

Editor's note: Brett Snyder is the founder of air travel assistance site Cranky Concierge, and he writes the consumer air travel blog The Cranky Flier.

(CNN) -- When United recently announced that it would install inflight Internet on all its mainline aircraft beginning next year, it might not have seemed like a big deal.

After all, airlines have had Internet on board for a couple of years now and it has become quite common.

This, however, is different. This is the first effort by a U.S. airline to provide Internet on intercontinental flights.

You might recognize AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta and Virgin America as airlines that have been aggressively installing Internet aboard their aircraft over the last few years. Those airlines, however, are constrained by geography because of the system they use.

All those carriers contract with Gogo to be their Internet provider, and Gogo transmits its signals from the ground: It has stations all over the United States that allow aircraft to connect to the Internet.

But these aren't installed in the water, so fairly soon after you go "feet wet" on your flight, the Internet stops working.

Airlines like this system because it's easy to install (it can be done overnight on an airplane), the system is relatively inexpensive and the bandwidth is cheap. That makes for a winning combination, but it does have constraints. That's why United is going a different route.

United is installing satellite-based Internet on its airplanes. As long as the aircraft is in range of the satellite, then Internet can flow freely. United is far from the first airline to do this. In fact, Southwest has been installing satellite Internet for a while now as well, but there is one big issue.

The problem with satellite-based Internet in general is that it's more expensive. You would expect that to be the case -- satellites don't come cheap.

There are also considerations about the amount of weight added to the aircraft from the antenna, the cost and the amount of time it takes to do an install (longer than the overnight required by Gogo).

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Airlines have been hesitant to sink a lot of money into something that, so far, hasn't seen much usage. Though reports are spotty, most airlines have hinted at single-digit percentage usage on aircraft. Some see more, like Virgin America and its more tech-savvy demographic, but in general, it's not a lot.

United, however, is making a bet that it will catch on in greater numbers and it will be an important amenity. How much will it cost you, the traveler? We don't know, because United hasn't said anything. But we can look at its partner airline Lufthansa to get an idea of how other long-haul airlines are pricing the same system.

When you fly Lufthansa today, you can pay €10.95 for one hour (about $15) or €19.95 for 24 hours (about $27). United will certainly come up with its own pricing, but this gives you a sense of what you're looking at.

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Now that United has made the move, we have to wait and see if others will follow. A Delta spokesperson says the airline is "reviewing international connectivity options for our customers but (we) don't have further details at this time."

It might not actually be United's move that pushes others to offer long-haul Internet but rather technological advances.

Last month, a new satellite was launched into space, and it will provide faster, cheaper Internet. (It uses a different technology than the service United has signed up with for its long-haul flights). JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV has been offering this option, and JetBlue itself will begin installing it on its fleet next year.

Will Delta and American eventually fall in line and put Internet on their long haul fleets? I would imagine so, but when it happens and with what technology still remains to be seen.

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