How to avoid huge in-flight Wi-Fi bills

How to avoid huge in-flight Wi-Fi bills
Trend Hunter CEO Jeremy Gutsche did not opt for his Wi-Fi to be disconnected once he reached the plan's limit.

You might expect to pay $1,500 for a flight to Paris, but for Wi-Fi? Maybe not.

But that is what happened to a Singapore Airlines passenger flying from London to Singapore last week.

Canadian Jeremy Gutsche, chief executive of Toronto-based consultancy Trend Hunter, signed up for a 30MB in-flight Internet plan for US$28.99 (S$37.65).

He could have opted for his Wi-Fi to be disconnected once he reached the plan's limit, but instead he chose to keep his Wi-Fi rolling at an additional US$1.50 per MB.

Mr Gutsche said on a blog post to his Trend Hunter website that he read 155 pages of e-mails and downloaded a PowerPoint presentation before falling asleep, so he was gobsmacked to receive a US$1,171 (S$1,520) Wi-Fi bill when he landed. He certainly did not plan on shelling out $1,142 for extra data.

Mr Gutsche did not reply to a request from SundayLife! for comment, but earlier this week, he told the Wall Street Journal: "Just because someone agrees to terms and conditions doesn't mean those terms are ethical. I think the overage model is excessive and I can imagine someone like my mom, or a family, or a backpacker going aimlessly over."

Nevertheless, Singapore Airlines and its Switzerland-based Wi-Fi service supplier OnAir have reviewed and are standing by the huge bill, which may be attributed to applications with automatic-sync and backup settings running in the background.

Applications which automatically sync to Internet-based data storage services such as iCloud, those that use global positioning services to access your location or use push notifications, can rack up bandwidth if they are not disabled pre-flight.

OnAir said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal: "To consume several hundred megabytes during one flight takes much more than basic e-mail viewing, for example, downloading heavy attachments, cloud access and using Skype."

Singapore Airlines launched its on-board Wi-Fi services in September 2012. It is available on 33 of its aircraft, with more being progressively fitted with the services.

A Singapore Airlines spokesman says that customers are able to disconnect from Wi-Fi at any time during their session and are able to see - via a bar graphic on the Wi-Fi login page - the amount of data they have used and the costs incurred.

"This is made clear to customers before they confirm their payment," says the spokesman, "so customers can always be kept informed."

More than 40 airlines around the world now offer on-board Wi-Fi on select flights. While seven airlines, including Norwegian Air, Turkish Airlines and Air China, offer free Wi-Fi on some flights, most airlines opt for payment packages.

Some, such as Etihad Airways, provide Wi-Fi based on time, not the amount of data used. Passengers can choose from packages which cost US$11.95 for two hours, US$17.95 for four hours and US$21.95 for a full-flight Wi-Fi pass.

Wi-Fi is available for passengers throughout the plane and is complimentary for its Diamond First Class passengers.

Passengers can see how much "connectivity time" they have left on the flight by checking information on the top of the Etihad login page.

Wi-Fi is available on all of Emirates Airline's A380s and on 28 Boeing 777s. More than half a million passengers have connected to the airline's on-board Wi-Fi since the service started three years ago.

The airline believes Wi-Fi should be a standard service and subsidises Wi-Fi for its passengers' use.

Mr Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airline, says in a press release posted online: "It is a fact that our customers want on-board connectivity and this demand is only going to increase as more people embrace an 'always-on' digital lifestyle and carry smart mobile devices when they travel.

"We've always viewed Wi-Fi as a service and a value-added part of Emirates' overall product, rather than a revenue stream."

On most flights equipped with Wi-Fi, Emirates passengers get the first 10MB of data free, which is sufficient for most travellers to check their social media accounts, according to an Emirates spokesman. Any additional data will be charged at "a token" US$1 for the next 600MB.

Emirates is now updating its software so that it can eventually offer passengers unlimited free access to Wi-Fi.

Mr Clark adds: "If we can offer good quality Wi-Fi connections for everyone on board at no charge tomorrow, we will do it. But we face a slew of technical limitations - from speed and bandwidth availability and cost, to the supporting hardware and software - all of which we are working hard to address with the industry right now.

"Ultimately, we believe that on-board Wi-Fi will become a free service, and a standard that customers will expect on a full-service airline, just like on-board refreshments and personal in-flight entertainment."

In the meantime, Emirates passengers are paying for in-flight Wi-Fi service.

Entrepreneur Durjay Majlish, 28, was charged $300 for using Wi-Fi on a recent Emirates flight from Dubai to San Francisco. He did not baulk at the bill because the terms and conditions of the payment plan were clear.

"I think it was fair and an airline has the right to charge for Wi-Fi. It is a luxury and it costs the airlines to offer that service," he says.

WAYS TO OPTIMISE IN-FLIGHT WI-FI

In-flight Wi-Fi is not a perfect service and airlines still have some way to go to provide the level of connectivity that passengers are used to on the ground.

Currently, in-flight Wi-Fi on most airlines is provided by satellites or land-based 3G stations. This means that most Wi-Fi can operate only when the aircraft is at cruising altitude and flying over international waters or countries where its Wi-Fi connection is authorised.

This means that in-flight Wi-Fi will not work 100 per cent of the time.

In addition, in-flight Wi-Fi operates at average download speeds of 3 megabytes per second (mbps). Though some flights provide download speeds of around 10mbps, this is still much slower than the average 26mbps that people are used to when surfing on mobile devices in Singapore.

To optimise use of in-flight Wi-Fi, passengers must adapt their Internet habits and expectations.

First, disable any automatic software updates or backups which may be running in the background of your mobile device.

These will take up unnecessary bandwidth and result in hefty charges if you are paying per megabyte. The same goes for any programmes which automatically connect to the Internet. Disable these as well.

Do not have more than one programme connected to the Internet or more than one website open at a time. This will help the programme's ability to load more quickly.

Choose your websites wisely. Opt for text-based websites and avoid image-filled websites such as fashion blogs because the pictures will take a long time to load on a slow connection. If you want to read these while in the air, consider adding them to an RSS feed or cache them before take-off, so that they are easier to load later on.

Forget streaming video. Upload your favourite movies or shows before you leave home because in-flight Wi-Fi simply cannot cope just yet.

vlydia@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 23, 2014.
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