Keep watching the skies -- for RIM and Google?

Previously, much of the business model for the in-flight connectivity market has remained up in the air -- but that could all be about to change thanks to RIM and pals.

Previously, much of the business model for the in-flight connectivity market has remained up in the air -- but that could all be about to change thanks to RIM and pals.

In-flight connectivity is expensive -- prohibitively so. Businesspeople who can write off AU$2.50 for a minute on their expenses will doubtless be happy to hand over their corporate credit cards and carry on hammering away on their BlackBerrys during a flight.

For much of the rest of the public -- making short hops on budget airlines -- I'm not sure how great their willingness to grossly inflate their mobile bills will be. Holidays and flights are expensive enough without racking up a per-minute cost that would make Donald Trump blush or paying for an hour or two of broadband that could equal many people's monthly bill.

However, the cost concerns around in-flight connectivity could soon be resolved.

BlackBerry-maker RIM, US airline JetBlue and Yahoo, recently announced plans for a free in-flight service due to start this week. The service will give passengers access to Yahoo Mail and IM, as well as BlackBerry e-mails, over a Wi-Fi connection for gratis.

Not a bad idea. Would I pay to read my Yahoo Webmail in the air? Unlikely. Would I do it if were free? Probably. There's only so many in-flight movies and odd airline food (parsnip curry anyone?) any single traveller can waste time on and sending an e-mail or two to the folks on the ground is as good a distraction as any.

But while this new service will strike a chord with Yahoo and BlackBerry users, the remainder of creation that doesn't use either service is still staring down the barrel of a big fat bill if they fancy getting online.

So the in-flight connectivity industry, as I see it, has a choice: keep appealing to the relative niche of businesspeople with corporate credit cards, or find some content partners to sponsor the cost of connectivity.

Should the airline industry favour the latter path, it would seem a rather obvious opportunity for Skynet-in-waiting, Google. Give those in cattle-class a chance to access e-mail on a mobile or laptop in return for the promise of accepting yet more ad-slinging from the search giant.

Google has, after all, recently exposed its interest in acquiring mobile spectrum -- what better way to start off with mobility than in the nascent field of in-flight mobile broadband?

At the thought of the looming behemoth that is Google entering mobile, even the world's biggest cellular operators probably gave a little shudder. Google wouldn't necessarily want to get them offside -- mobile search and content provision, especially in emerging markets, will soon outstrip that from PCs -- so why not pull a feint and get into in-flight first?

But for all this daydreaming, the one question that looms large in sky-high connectivity is that of etiquette. Strapped in a small seat, leg room at premium, six hours of cattle class flying behind you, imagine the traveller next to you starts yapping on his mobile. Loudly. Repeatedly. Is it permissible to demand he shut up? Jab him with a plastic fork? Beg the stewardess for extra powerful earplugs?

Perhaps this is part of the airlines' master plan: allow in-flight mobility, then charge passengers for tickets in a mobile-free zone.


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