JetBlue won't 'police' in-flight voice calls over Wi-Fi

The airline says its Fly-Fi service will be able to carry VoIP and complaints will be handled case by case

The latest twist in the debate over in-flight calling might allow users of some Internet-based services to do voice and video chats immediately on some airliners.

JetBlue has launched in-flight Wi-Fi designed to carry streaming video, which is now live on three aircraft, the airline announced Thursday. JetBlue is blocking some ports used by Internet voice and video chat services, but it isn't stopping passengers from using voice.

"We're not currently policing it," spokesman Morgan Johnston said. "If we hear from our customers that there's an overwhelming desire to police it, we'll certainly take that into consideration."

JetBlue will handle complaints about individual passengers' voice calls on a case by case basis as part of maintaining harmony in the cabin, Johnston said.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted to seek comments on a plan to allow cellular service on planes through small onboard base stations. That plan wouldn't address whether voice calls would be allowed. The same day, the Department of Transportation said it would consider banning onboard voice calls specifically. Members of Congress are also exploring possible legislation against in-flight calls.

The FCC's proposal is aimed specifically at a 22-year-old regulation designed to protect the ground-based cellular network from interference. Many airlines outside the U.S. already allow cellular use over onboard "picocells," and they say those services are used mostly for text and data.

Even as U.S. airlines have installed onboard Wi-Fi networks that might be able to carry VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) services such as Skype, they have retained their own prohibitions on voice calls in flight.

JetBlue, which claims its Fly-Fi Wi-Fi service is the first that could really handle VoIP, plans to tackle the voice controversy mainly through technical means unless its passengers demand more.

Different online services use different virtual ports to reach the Internet, and service providers can block ports to keep users from accessing certain types of services. But there is some overlap in uses between port numbers, so port-blocking may not prevent all voice.

"We're doing what we can to discourage it," Johnston said. "We are blocking some VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) ports because we recognize that those are used strictly for VoIP, and there are some streaming ports specifically for streaming video that will remain open."

JetBlue's onboard Internet service is designed to let passengers watch streaming video from services such as NetFlix if they pay $9 per hour for a premium service level. For at least the first six months, all passengers will be able to use Wi-Fi free of charge, but that level of service is only designed for low-powered activities such as email and simple browsing. If users watch video on the free service and don't upgrade, they eventually will have their speed throttled.

Fly-Fi offers an average downstream speed of about 12Mbps, but its upstream speed is 1Mbps or less, which should help to discourage two-way voice calling, Johnston said.

The airline expects to deploy the system throughout its main fleet of Airbus A320 planes by the end of next year. It's powered by JetBlue's Live TV subsidiary and links planes to the Internet via satellite.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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Tags: Internet-based applications and services, Networking, regulation, wireless, internet, industry verticals, WLANs / Wi-Fi, government, mobile, JetBlue, video, Telephony/conferencing, transportation, U.S. Federal Communications Commission
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