Xfinity and Southwest Airlines Wi-Fi: connectivity abundance helps the time pass by

-December 31, 2013

A few weeks ago, as I was getting ready to jump on a plane for another trip, a neighbor asked me if my "down time" sitting in airports waiting for flight departures was unproductive. I chuckled; the increasing presence of (sometimes ad-supported) free Wi-Fi in airports, coupled with my ever-present MacBook Pro laptop, meant that I was able to keep consuming and generating content any time I wasn't in motion. And, if the Wi-Fi cost money (or was already overwhelmed by other freeloaders, in a case study of the Tragedy of the Commons), I could always alternatively Bluetooth-tether to the "grandfathered" unlimited-data plans on my iPhone 4s and iPad 3.

More generally, as time goes on, I find myself increasingly able to be online every waking moment ... which, mind you, isn't an all-good situation by any means, but certainly does boost productivity. For example, as a long-time network neutrality advocate as well as a Comcast broadband customer, I was more than a little concerned a few months ago when I found out that the company was planning on notably boosting its nationwide Xfinity Wi-Fi Hotspot network coverage by leveraging its customers' broadband tethers.

After I read the fine print, I realized I wasn't personally affected by the move; it's only relevant to customers who rent integrated modem-plus-router gateway hardware, whereas I bought my own cable modem and standalone router. Still, it didn't seem fair for Comcast to expand its Wi-Fi network footprint on the backs of its paying customers ... it's still not clear to me if "Our broadband customers will continue to get the service that they are paying for" means that the public network data stream runs over a distinct DOCSIS channel or partitioned sub-channel, or if the gateway just leverages QoS techniques to minimize bandwidth and latency impacts to the customer's own WAN connection. And I certainly hope that Comcast was smart enough to put the customer's Wi-Fi signal on a channel that doesn't overlap that of the public "xfinitywifi" network's signal.

Admittedly, however, I'm a bit of a hypocrite; while I wouldn't be enthralled with the idea of others piggy-backing on my cable Internet connection, I'm happy to harness theirs. A couple of blocks down the street from the corporate headquarters of my full-time employer, for example, is a decent sushi restaurant with optional outside seating. While waiting for my dinner to arrive one evening, I fired up my laptop and decided to see if I could find something more robust in speed than tethered 3G cellular data service.

Lo and behold, a strong (and unencrypted, versus the other available candidates) "xfinitywifi" beacon showed up as an option. After connecting to it, an automatic pop-up in my browser prompted me to enter my Comcast account credentials, and I was good to go. Presumably (and hopefully), the necessity to type one's own username and password uniquely identifies any subsequent nefarious activity that a particular "xfinitywifi" user might undertake online, versus incorrectly fingering the Comcast customer whose connection is being harnessed as the culprit.

As another example, let's return to the earlier mentioned airport. As I suspect many of you already know, the FAA announced at the end of October that it was lifting many aspects of the longstanding (and long-ignored) ban on passengers using electronic devices through the entirety of a flight. The relent isn't complete; cellular subsystems must still be turned off prior to take off and left off until after landing. In mid-November, the FCC initially indicated that it was considering also dropping the cellphone usage restriction above 10,000 feet, but quickly backtracked in the face of backlash from passengers, airlines, government officials and other government agencies. Thank goodness for sanity.

Cellular aside, Delta and JetBlue immediately announced that they'd join the FAA embrace of electronics use during takeoff and landing; other airlines quickly followed their lead. It took Southwest Airlines three weeks to get with the program, but the airline came through with a unique twist. Most airlines harness a Gogo or other cellular (ground-to-air) approach to providing an airplane with Internet connectivity, but Southwest (and JetBlue, too, albeit via a dissimilar technology) instead tether their planes to the 'Net via satellite-based service. Long-time readers may remember that I wrote about a satellite-based precursor service, Connexion by Boeing, a decade back.

Southwest Airlines' "gate to gate" claim isn't completely accurate; if you've got a laptop, you still need to keep it off below 10,000 feet, I presume not for any fundamental electronics reason but instead to discourage the use of seat trays. If you've got a tablet computer (for example), on the other hand, you're set from wheels-up through touchdown. "Full" Internet service costs $8 per device per day (it's not clear to me if this service access potentially extends across multiple flights during that day ... does anyone know?); the quotes reflect the fact that Southwest blocks access to high-bandwidth services such as "Netflix, HBO Go and VoIP." And if messaging (and only messaging) is your thing, it'll set you back only $2 per day.

And how well does Southwest's In-Flight Wi-Fi work? Pretty well, albeit not hiccup-free. Here are the results of three consecutive bandwidth tests during a flight from Denver to Chicago (Midway); I have no idea how many other passengers were simultaneously using the same wireless WAN tether, and to what degree:

I used the service on my 13" MacBook Pro throughout the flight (except below 10,000 feet, as previously noted) and experienced occasional albeit brief glitches:

More annoying, actually, was the perpetual pop-up overlayed over browser windows:

which I was best-case only able to minimize, although the "X" on the left side of the pop-up had incorrectly suggested that a full "exit" might be possible:

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