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Texting mom in the friendly skies above SXSW

So, as I discovered on my recent trip to the Detroit auto show, we’re already well down the road towards connected cars. But yesterday at SXSW I had the chance to sample the future of connected airplanes 10,000 feet above the mayhem on the streets of Austin, courtesy of in-flight internet specialist Gogo’s private jet.

Previously this luxury has mainly only been available to those lucky folks who can afford the private flying experience, but companies such as Gogo are trying to bring telephony in the air to the masses.

This doesn’t mean we’ll all soon be annoyed by the large shouty salesperson constantly on their cell phone during our flights: at least, not in the US. Brad Jaehn, VP of product at Gogo, told me the concept of in-flight voice calls might be acceptable in some cultures, such as Asia and the Middle East, but it would never catch on in the US and Europe.

So, in time, internet, text, and messaging on planes will be ubiquitous; voice will be restricted to those regions that are cool with it.

On the Gogo flight, myself and other journalists were able to send texts from above 10,000 feet and make voice calls. Touchingly, most people chose to call their moms, who were very confused to get calls from their sons in the sky (I wasn’t allowed to call mine because she is in England and it would have cost too much…).

The call quality was a little spotty, but generally very good. As Jaehn explained, if you are a private jet owner in the habit of placing $100 million stock trades over the phone then call quality is absolutely essential.

Gogo’s technology is in 2,200 commercial planes in North America at the moment, with 400 more committed by the end of this year in places including Japan and Mexico, and with one of their primary partners, Delta. The in-flight telephony is also in 5,000 private planes around the world.

Gogo went public last year and, as with many emerging technology startups, the stock is volatile: yesterday it was around $7 up from its float price at $24. It faces barriers such as regulation, where the approval cycle is longer than home internet.

Air regulators also want to be absolutely certain that this technology could not be used for nefarious purposes such as remotely detonating explosives in the plane via a telephone call. But, within five years, there is little doubt the days of being completely disconnected from your friends, family, clients, and work colleagues will be history.

As SXSW shows in so many ways, there is no escape from our connected world.

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