Bill shock at 30,000 feet

Just when we you thought we had been saved from the scourge of bill shock stories in the press comes news that an airline passenger was stung $1711.64 for using the Wi-Fi service on a Singapore Airlines flight.

The passenger, Jeremy Gutsche, signed up for a 30MB package costing $28.99 but earned himself the massive surcharge for ‘additional overage charges.’

The interesting part is that he swears he did not watch any videos (the speed and coverage was too crappy for that) but only used the access for doing emails and sending corporate documents he had been working on.

Needless to say, he was more than a little miffed and became very vocal on social networking, online news channels and mainstream press worldwide.

Those less sympathetic souls among us might be quick to say ‘serves him right’ for not keeping track of his usage but if he was not given any warning that he had reached and exceeded his allocation then the onus falls back on the service provider, surely?

Well, that’s what happens at ground level and it’s the reason almost every internet and communications service provider has built into their systems data usage tracking and SMS or email notifications when limits are being reached – some voluntarily, others by regulations imposed on them.

The collateral fiscal damage caused by the ‘bill shock’ stories far outweighs the cost of preventing it – ask any telco marketing exec! Sadly, airlines are going to find out the hard way.

This raises two interesting scenarios. The companies providing the service to the airlines will need to implement more sophisticated systems to provide the level of service earthbound customers now expect. There lies an opportunity for software and equipment vendors, surely? However, it raises a far more interesting question with regard the connectedness of customers, and how critical that has become.

For Mr Gutsche, those normally wasted hours in the air were put to good use, but how long will it be before Wi-Fi offered on board either becomes a competitive advantage or is offered at low cost, even free, to passengers as a differentiator for airlines desperate to win new customers. Isn’t that what happened in the hotel industry. I, for one, now seek out hotels that a) have unlimited Wi-Fi access for all my devices, and b) offer it free.

I don’t mind paying something for a premium or higher speed option, but for the most part I only need email and web-browsing capabilities. And I really expect to be connected all the time. Sadly, what I want as a customer flies in the face of the net neutrality pundits, including President Obama, that insist everyone should get unlimited premium service unfettered by any restrictions on speed or quality. Get real.

But getting back to the main point. It’s one thing for service providers to induce customers to get hooked on being always connected via data plans, it’s quite another ensuring that they can have their fix at a reasonable price wherever they travel.

It seems that those providing Wi-Fi and internet access on planes have no interconnect agreements with mobile phone operators so inflight data roaming is not yet possible, but it will happen and when it does the customer will want to be sure that they will be able to continue their connected habits just as they would on the ground.

The airlines will find, like their earthbound telco cousins have already discovered, that prevention may be a better option than adopting a cure way after the ‘bill shock’ damage has been done.

For customers, they can still dream of the day when they can go anywhere and stay connected continuously all part of the one data plan they have with the favorite service provider and not pay excruciating roaming fees. Yeah, dream on……

PS Since writing this post I have had the pleasure of flying long-haul on an Emirates A380 and was offered 10MB data access free of charge with a low-cost optional extension through the OnAir inflight Wi-Fi system. Just enough to get emails and send messages to loved ones about how good the Emirates in-flight service is. This is one airline that gets it, no dreaming on required.

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Tony Poulos
About Tony Poulos 48 Articles
Tony is a freelance writer, regular speaker, MC and chairman for the telecoms and digital services industries worldwide. He has founded and managed software and services companies, been contributing Analyst for IDC, a freelance writer and is a columnist and video anchor for Telecom Asia. In June 2011, Tony was recognized as one of the 25 most influential people in telecom software worldwide.

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