Surfing The Web At 30,000 Feet

I'm on a Virgin America flight about an hour west of Washington DC as I chat with a friend via instant messaging, update my Facebook page, send little notes on Twitter, watch streaming web video and update my blog. I'm even filing this column from the air. It went up on the Web before I landed.

This is the first time I've surfed the Web from the air, which I guess makes me a Virgin in-flight WiFi user.

The cost is $9.95 for the entire flight and the service is great. Considering that this is a six-hour flight, I could stream 3 movies before reaching San Francisco.

The service is offered by GoGo which is also on American flights between New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles and Miami, as well as on some Delta flights.

Unlike the live satellite TV programming offered on Virgin, JetBlue and a few other airlines, the Internet service is relayed from ground stations across the continental United States.

According to the company's Web site, "with nothing but air between these towers and your plane, you're always getting the best connection" and so far that seems to be true.

I'm getting 1.5 mbps download speed which is better than many DSL services. The bandwidth is good enough for me to have sampled some news videos on CBSNews.com, a movie on NetFlix.com and the Colbert Report on Hulu.com. It's fast enough for Skype but, according to GoGo's website, voice calls are not allowed. I tried Skype (before reading about the prohibition) and the person I called could hear me, but his voice was garbled.

I did this as an experiment, but even if it worked, I'd avoid it for all but very short and urgent calls because it would distract fellow passengers.

Speaking of distracting, there are some etiquette "rules" that GoGo suggests passengers follow. They ask you to mute the sound or use headphones, avoid voice calls and "be an angel" and not visit sites that might shock your neighbors.

In other words, don't risk exposing others to porn. Bloomberg has reported that American Airlines flight attendants asked company to filter porn from the service. As far as I can tell, the service is not currently blocking any content on Virgin America but - via a live chat from the air - a Gogo representative on the ground told me they are now filtering content on American Airlines.

So far, this has been a first-class experience even though I'm stuffed into an economy seat. Mostly, it's a way to make time fly on what would otherwise be a pretty boring trek across the continental United States.