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Streaming (not Snakes) on a Plane!

May 9, 2011

I know that WiFi on planes has been around a while.  But I don’t fly all that much, and when I do it never seems to be on my plane.  But I just flew SouthWest from Texas to Maryland, and the flight had WiFi – so I had to check it out.

I was fully expecting, and would be fine with, 3G-level access, given that I’m in a plane.  Any Internet access at all while trapped in the aluminum tube is a plus.  So I was figuring this would be like using a MyFi-type access point, perhaps even slower, and with some hiccups along the way.

I enabled WiFi using my iPad right after take-off so I could use it the entire time.  I first just tried poking around various sites, like Twitter and Facebook, and it was surprisingly snappy.  There was this annoying header on top of every web page, but you could close it.  I figured there was some proxy in the middle, and they probably didn’t have anything but HTTP/S open.

Hmmm…  Well, let me try to push the limits.  So first I tried to RD into a remote machine, and to my surprise it worked, and fairly well!  I guess they aren’t blocking any ports.

Then I decided to really test it out, and I started up my Slingbox client on my iPad.  After the standard few seconds, it opened up and was streaming at a fairly high quality from my bedroom Tivo at home.  I showed it to my wife, who wasn’t nearly as excited as I was.  I used the (painfully slow under any circumstances) Slingbox UI to change the channel to HGTV in the hopes of getting more emotion from her, but to no avail.  Then I got distracted by the home improvement show that was on, and I watched it for about 30 minutes.

After having almost no streaming hiccups at all, I realized it was about 6:30pm ET, and that I might still be able to watch some live TNT on TWiT (I can’t get enough of Tom Merritt and Sara Lane – the journalist, not the ballerina).  I first tried the web site, but it doesn’t work very well on the iPad.  So I quickly fired up my TWiT app with live streaming (the ShiftKeySoftware one), and was watching live TWiT in about 10 seconds!  Although I had missed TNT and instead was greeted by Brian Brushwood on Framerate.  The quality again was great, and I ended up watching it the rest of the flight home.

Overall the ability to stream live on a plane is extremely realistic and practical.  Most of the apps self-adjust for bandwidth, but even so I was seeing a very high-quality picture (better than on 3G).  There were minimal hiccups, and they seemed to occur about once every half-hour, and seemed to either be a reset of my WiFi connection due to bandwidth use, or a general plane reset (the browser banner would reappear around the same time as well).

So if you’re wondering whether you should buy that WiFi on the plane, go for it!  (And the iPad is treated like a mobile device, so it’s usually cheaper.)  And it’s fun to check-in on FourSquare or Facebook Places to an airplane in-flight.

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