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August 31, 2016

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Up in the clouds, both real and cybernet

EDITOR’S note:

INTERNET Plus, a concept highlighted in the government work report delivered by Premier Li Keqiang at the annual session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March, is pushing the boundaries of China’s traditional industries. Nowadays, enterprises across the country are embracing changes by incorporating advancements in the Internet and related technologies into their business models. In a series by Shanghai Daily, we explore how this concept is reshaping our world.

I have conflicting opinions about the news that Chinese air passengers will finally be able to use mobile phones during domestic and international flights, probably starting next year.

I am pleased about the idea of being able to do work, book travel services and even shop online via onboard Wi-Fi. But thinking about it a bit more, I do have some concerns about the lifting of the current ban on electronic devices.

Legislation to revise that ban is now underway and is expected to be published by the end of the year or early next year. The changes will allow air passengers to use their smartphones during flights, according to Zhu Tao, director of the air transportation division at the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the industry regulator.

Currently, passengers under strict rules while on board. Those who flout the rules are subject to fines up to 50,000 yuan (US$7,515).

The policy change is not unique to China, the world’s second-largest air-travel market.

At present, in-flight Wi-Fi services are available on a majority of airlines in the United States, Europe, Singapore and Hong Kong. More than 78 percent of overseas flights feature Wi-Fi functions, based on RouteHappy, an in-flight merchandising platform. That compares with only about 2 percent of Chinese airlines, according to industry insiders.

On a trip from Shanghai to Beijing two months ago, I somehow lost my MacBook Air, which held a story I had written for Shanghai Daily. I couldn’t find the laptop after landing, so I was up until 3am rewriting my assignment.

The story would not have been lost if Wi-Fi had been available during the flight because my laptop documents are automatically stored in online cloud servers in an Internet-ready environment.

I am not the only passenger welcoming Wi-Fi on airplanes.

On the demand side, more than 90 percent of passengers in China want in-flight Wi-Fi services, according to a survey conducted in 2015 by Inmarsat, a service provider of mobile satellite communications.

The new service will also open a gateway to business for airline operators in China, including budget airline Spring Airlines and China Eastern, the country’s No. 2 carrier.

Businesses will be able to advertise and sell online products and services while passengers are mid-flight, said Zhang Chi, a deputy director of China Eastern.

“While I let passengers browse the Internet for free, I can at the same time profit from advertising and on-board shopping,” Zhang was quoted by Bloomberg as saying. “There will be a big positive return.”

According to Frost & Sullivan, the global market for in-flight e-commerce is expected to reach US$1.7 billion by 2020, from US$1.4 billion last year.

Even without these figures, I can easily imagine the demand. Travelers want to check emails, write business documents, stay connected on WeChat, watch the “Song of Ice and Fire,” conduct video conference and do stock trading. These needs are especially important during longer international flights, when travelers normally feel cut off from their home base.

But I do worry about the impact of all this on other passengers.

From personal experience, I get irritated when seat mates are using their laptops when food and drink are served, making narrow economy class space even more limited

Audio applications, such as FaceTime, WeChat and even video conferencing, could annoy passengers who want to sleep or do some serious reading during a flight.

Then, too, there are also concerns about this obsession to “stay connected 7/24.” In-flight time often offers me a personal space for meditation, reading and rest. Even casual conversations with neighboring passengers are often interesting.

The price of Wi-Fi has yet to be determined for domestic flights. Overseas flights typically charge users US$5-12 an hour or a flat rate for one flight. Initially, the cost on domestic flights is expected to be high, until competition eventually forces fees lower.

US-based Gogo recently announced it is forming a partnership with China Telecom Satellite to provide such in-flight Wi-Fi services. It will begin installing devices on several Hainan Air and Beijing Capital Airlines aircraft, with some planes offering in-flight streaming entertainment as well.

China Eastern is also testing the service on several flights, offering free service to the first 50 passengers who apply.

As for me, I hope I can afford the new service when I really need it. Otherwise, I probably won’t be willing to pay for it during every flight I take.


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