Wi-fi in the Sky: In Flight Internet

Air travel has, for many years, been a largely phone-free zone. We’ve had to turn off our electronic devices, and rely instead on movies and in-flight magazines for entertainment.

Today, connectivity is much more important. Passengers don’t just want to admire the view, or complain about a meal to their neighbor – they expect to be able to tweet about it, immediately, complete with pictures.

Many airlines are responding. In-flight Wi-Fi is now accessible on around 40 per cent of U.S. flights and on international long haul flights via companies such as Lufthansa, Emirates and Qatar Airways. Norwegian and Turkish airlines even offer the service for free, while Scandinavian airline SAS is testing it on some of its air craft now.

There are significant problems, though. Connections are often slow and unreliable. Prices can be high, $US20 or more – usually per device – for a full flight. Unsurprisingly users, for the most part, aren’t happy.

“Only 28 per cent of business travellers are satisfied with in-flight Wi-Fi offered by airlines”, said a 2012 FlightView survey of over 600 US passengers flying for work.

What’s more, this situation is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Why? Let’s get back to basics.

How plane Wi-Fi works

The key problem with airplane Wi-Fi is how you connect with the ground. There are two main routes that companies might take:

Providers build a network of 3G ground stations with which planes communicate as they fly overhead. It’s a simple system, but bandwidth can be limited to as little as 3.1 mega-bites per second (and that’s for the entire flight, not per customer), so you can forget any ideas you had about streaming videos.

These companies are now rolling out ATG-4 technology, equipping planes with dual modems and directional antennae, and this all helps boost total bandwidth to a theoretical maximum of 9.8 mega-bites per second – but that’s still not very much. And it won’t help at all when a plane flies out to sea and leaves the ground stations behind.

Airplane WiFi

The alternative approach is for each plane to connect via satellite. Some use legacy L-band technology, now slow and relatively expensive. And that’s why higher-frequency Ku-band (12-18GHz) satellites are the mainstream, relatively economical and delivering good performance. Lufthansa’s FlyNet system, for instance, claims download speeds to the aircraft of up to 50 mega-bites per second, which isn’t bad for the middle of the ocean.

From your point of view as a passenger, all you then have to do is connect to the system on the plane. You just turn on your phone, use it, and just like international roaming, the costs are included in your regular phone bill.”

Connect via Wi-Fi instead and you’ll have to pay according to your airline’s own rules: you might be able to pay by bandwidth, for time used (anything from a few minutes to a monthly unlimited pass), distance travelled and more. Choosing an individual option isn’t difficult, but this does make it hard to compare the services on offer. If you’re interested in airline Wi-Fi, be sure to read the small print extremely carefully.

Where next for in-flight Wi-Fi?

When you look at how much we’re currently paying for frequently sub-standard plane connectivity, it’s easy to assume the providers are just profiteering, cashing in on those who really need to be online all the time. But the reality isn’t nearly as straightforward as that.

GoGo, for instance, has an 81 per cent market share in the US, and increased its consolidated revenue by 46 per cent, yet still managed to post a net loss of $US32.7 million. It’s never made a profit and competition is increasing.

Other providers are in a similar position, and it leaves them with a problem. It’s hard to justify increasing the service price even more, but they can’t cut it to get the volume of customers they need either, because their on-board systems just don’t have the bandwidth to cope.

In the short term, both providers and airlines are left searching for other ways to build a working business model.

Aeroplane Wi-Fi has some significant issues at the moment, then, which is perhaps why some companies remain very cautious. British Airways, for instance, is reportedly planning a 12 month trial on just a single plane, since it clearly doesn’t see a major commercial opportunity just yet.

Picking up speed

There is a major hope for the future, though, in Ka-band (26.5-40GHz) satellites, which promise perhaps 100 times the capacity of regular Ku-band. The service doesn’t have to come at a premium price, either: Ka-band has so much bandwidth that the cost should fall, as mobile satellite technology consultant Tim Farrar of TMF Associates points out: “ViaSat’s Ka-band satellite could reduce the capacity cost by a factor of up to about five times”.

How plane Wi-Fi works - or doesn't

We shouldn’t take this entirely for granted, of course – Ka-band is a relatively new technology with issues still to be resolved (including latency), and exactly how it will cope when perhaps half a plane full of passengers want to watch movies at Netflix isn’t yet clear.

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