VoIP in the air made the front pages this week when Delta airlines called the cops because one of their passengers was using a VoIP application over the WiFi-based airborne broadband service that Delta offers. The passenger, it turns out, was the founder and CEO of a VoIP company – Talmon Marco, the CEO of a company called Viber.
What’s particularly irksome about the incident was that one of the Delta flight crew told Marco that FAA regulations prohibit the use of VoIP while in flight. The fact is that there is no such FAA rule. Another crew member then said it was against Delta’s rules, and finally admitted the truth that it was against the terms of service of the broadband provider that Delta uses. And even though Marco immediately stopped his call, the Delta crew still radioed ahead to have the authorities waiting when the plane landed.
What I find really interesting is that, in all the coverage of this, I heard repeated over and over the old saw that most passengers don’t want others on the plane disturbing them by chatting on the phone. Both the FAA and the airlines keep this myth alive. Funny thing though – the airlines never seem to worry about that when they provide their own in-flight telephone service. Ah, but then the airlines get a big rake off of the absurd prices charged for in-flight phone service. Once a passenger has paid the fee for his broadband, there’s no additional revenue from a VoIP call. At least not yet – I do believe that if they figure out how to charge passengers, suddenly VoIP calls from 30,000 feet will be just fine, thank you … for a price.
Marco, I should note, was using a smartphone with a VoIP app that works over broadband. That made it obvious that he was making a phone call. I’ve also made calls from the air, but using VoIP apps on a laptop. In fact about a decade ago I made what was probably one of the very first such calls, since I was flying on the very first commercial jet to offer WiFi.
VoIP technology has come a long way since then, and I’m really looking forward to dedicated Wi-Fi based clients from Phone.com for both my laptop and smartphone, for general use, not specifically while airborne. Viber, without criticizing, is only of use to call others who also run Viber software, which I dare say doesn’t include anybody that I know. What I expect from Phone.com is software that will both let me access the entire range of business VoIP services – which I can do now over WiFi – AND make my voice call connections over WiFi, which is still something for the near future.
By the way, when Marco told the police what really happened, they immediately let him go on his way. It seems that New York Port Authority police have more sense than Delta flight attendants.
Stuart Zipper is currently a contributing editor to Communications Technology, a high tech business journalism consultant and freelancer, and the past Senior Editor of TelecomWeb news break.