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Long flights are one of the worst times to be disconnected from the internet. Fortunately, more and more airlines are now offering in-flight Wi-Fi, allowing passengers to check their emails and surf the web while 40,000 feet in the sky.
So, how does it work? Which airlines offer it? And more importantly, what are the downsides? Is it actually worth the money?
How In-Flight Wi-Fi Works
On the last flight you took, I’m sure you noticed your cell phone losing its connection. Regular telephone networking doesn’t work when you reach a certain height. How, then, do airplanes offer an internet connection some 12 kilometers above the earth’s crust? There is a simple answer to this.
Modern planes have antennas allowing them to pick up signals from one of two sources: ground stations or satellites.
The first method uses a series of overlapping ground stations that constantly beam cellular signals into the sky. Your aircraft connects to the ground stations using a series of antennas situated in the underside of the aircraft fuselage. The connection forwards to a server and router situated on the aircraft and then broadcasts throughout the cabin.
The major downside to ground station in-flight Wi-Fi is the lack of coverage on any flight that crosses a large expanse of water or mountainous terrain.
The other method uses communication satellites. Communication satellites broadcast directly to antennas situated on the top of the aircraft fuselage. In-flight Wi-Fi using communication satellites offer increased reliability, coverage, and speeds. Unfortunately, an improved service also comes with an increase in cost.
A Short Note on Network Speed and Terminology
In this article, I will refer to internet speed in megabytes per second (MB/s). According to Speedtest, the average broadband connection in the US had a download speed of 12.03MB/s and an upload speed of 4.11MB/s.
For most people, the download speed is important as it values how quickly the internet data reaches your machine. However, if you are sending information to the internet, such as in an online game or uploading files to a CMS, the upload speed is just as important.
Ku-Band In-Flight Wi-Fi
GoGo Air is one of the largest in-flight Wi-Fi providers in the United States. A wide range of U.S. airlines currently use GoGo Air’s ATG4 (Air-to-Ground 4).
ATG4 was a major step for in-flight Wi-Fi systems, boosting the number of antennas on each aircraft as well as the number of ATG towers to over 200 across the continental U.S., Canada, and Alaska. The system and network upgrade meant each aircraft could make use of 1.22MB/s (It was previously just 0.38MB/s.)
Yes, that’s an entire aircraft using 1.22MB/s. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that a handful of passengers can saturate that bandwidth, let alone 300 passengers feverishly simultaneously attempting to stream Netflix.
GoGo Air’s latest update shifts their in-flight Wi-Fi technology to a series of relay satellites. 2Ku, as the technology is known, uses a relay of satellites (via SES and Intelsat) to make use of the Ku band portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. 2Ku uses two Ku-band antennas to provide separate download and upload connections.
The Ku-band antennas provide a theoretical peak download of 12.5MB/s, depending on the satellite connection. (That’s very similar to the average US household connection.)
Actual in-flight speed tests from several journalists show the actual figure to be lower, although with much better upload speeds. The antennas are smaller than existing options, decreasing drag, turbulence, and fuel-burn associated with in-flight Wi-Fi antennas.
2Ku represents a significant leap forward for in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity. However, it is difficult for airlines to change their in-flight Wi-Fi provider. Unlike your home connection, an airline must be retrofitted with the correct antennas and routers for the specific service, and these changes don’t come cheap.
The Downsides of In-Flight Wi-Fi
The main Achilles heel of in-flight Wi-Fi is connectivity. More airlines than ever offer some form of in-flight Wi-Fi connection, but whether it is worth using is another question.
There are a few things for you to consider before buying in-flight Wi-Fi credits for your upcoming trip.
1. It Isn’t Cheap
Even though coverage is better than ever, the price of in-flight Wi-Fi remains extremely high. Restrictions on in-flight data use are easing as in-flight connectivity and network capacity increases, but you will still pay over-the-odds for a half-decent connection.
A few years back, travel blogger Ben Schlappig snapped possibly one of the worst in-flight Wi-Fi offerings of all time. Schlappig was flying business class on an Iberia A340 from New York to Madrid, which had OnAir Wi-Fi.
The cheapest Wi-Fi package offered 4MB for around $5. Each additional 100KB cost $0.17. Yes, you read that right: kilobyte.
Given the average web page size is now around 3MB, you’re not going to be doing much of anything. However, that experience was a couple of years back now, and things are slightly better, depending on the airline.
For instance, Norwegian offer free Wi-Fi for all passengers. You will fight among yourselves for the bandwidth but won’t receive a charge for the data you use or the time connected. On the flipside, Emirates passengers receive up to 20MB and two hours of free Wi-Fi access, but after that, you must pay between $9.99 to $15.99 for an in-flight Wi-Fi package.
2. Many Sites Are Restricted
Unlike your home internet connection, your in-flight connection will come with an extensive range of restricted sites. This can be for various reasons. Obviously, sites offering adult content of all varieties are off limits. Airline Wi-Fi providers work with extremely limited bandwidth and must preserve the available data for other passengers.
Depending on the existing in-flight network infrastructure, you will also find restrictions for live video streaming services such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Twitch. Before airline JetBlue upgraded their in-flight Wi-Fi, the carrier blocked Snapchat after it added live video services. American Airlines took a similar stance.
FYI: You can't use Snapchat on JetBlue flights https://t.co/pnGfq1E1JK
— Mike Murphy (@mcwm) April 14, 2016
In some cases, airlines partner with those video streaming services to offer in-flight content. JetBlue offers every passenger the chance to stream high-quality Amazon Prime video direct to their device, and that’s on their free in-flight Wi-Fi plan.
The upgraded JetBlue Fly-Fi+ allows passengers to use a VPN, play online games, and stream non-Amazon streaming services at the cost of $9 per flight.
3. In-Flight Wi-Fi Is Notoriously Unreliable
While testing Gogo’s incoming 2Ku in-flight Wi-Fi, Ars Technica’s Jonathan M. Gitlin made two important observations. On his flight to the test, using GoGo’s ATG4, it took four minutes to upload four images with a total size of 1.5MB.
At times, he couldn’t even connect to the Ars CMS. ATG4 may have increased connectivity, but upload speeds are still an absolute horror show.
The second observation was the drastic improvement using GoGo’s Ku2 in-flight Wi-Fi, uploading 25 images totaling 26.3MB in just 2 minutes and 13 seconds.
Pretty sure I just paid $20 for an in-flight Wifi that’s about as fast as the 14.4k modem that I had in high school that took me 6 years to load a picture enough to see cleavage.
— Thoughts of Cop. (@thoughtsofcop) December 22, 2018
Simply put, your in-flight Wi-Fi won’t compare with your home internet connection or even your 4G mobile connection. The sheer volume of passengers attempting to use the limited bandwidth will always create issues.
Increasing the bandwidth will certainly help your in-flight Wi-Fi experience, but users will still saturate whatever available data there is.
An Airbus A321 in high-density configuration (the one used overwhelmingly by low-budget carriers) holds 236 passengers. A typical Emirates Airbus A380 with a three-class layout (containing economy, business, and first-class seats) holds an astonishing 517 passengers.
You’ve got to fight all of them for internet access.
In short, you need to simultaneously lower your expectations, while also appreciating the technical marvel that is in-flight Wi-Fi.
Which Airlines Offer In-Flight Wi-Fi?
Domestic US flyers are extremely lucky in that almost all carriers have some form of in-flight Wi-Fi. Rather than list the airlines that do offer it, I might as well mention the major ones that don’t:
Allegiant and Frontier are low-budget carriers and are unlikely to install the costly hardware in-flight Wi-Fi requires. Passengers using those services want cheap flights and offering an in-flight Wi-Fi amenity isn’t cost effective. After all, anything that increases the cost of a ticket is to be avoided.
Hawaiian, on the other hand, isn’t a low budget carrier. The Hawaiian state flag carrier is investigating in-flight Wi-Fi options and expects to decide in 2019.
The United States third budget carrier, Spirit, is currently upgrading its entire fleet with in-flight Wi-Fi.
Outside of the US, carriers are also taking up the in-flight Wi-Fi mantle.
Europe and the Rest of the World
RyanAir, EasyJet, Norwegian, Vueling, Wizz Air, and Eurowings dominate the inter-European market.
In-flight Wi-Fi access is a mixed bag. Vueling, Eurowings, and Norwegian all offer in-flight Wi-Fi; Vueling and Norwegian are free for every passenger.
EasyJet has a device connection portal on some flights, depending on the age of the airplane, where you can connect to and stream a limited range of films and shows, but no actual web browsing, social media, or otherwise. Wizz Air has nothing all, so make sure you load up your devices with shows before leaving home.
But that’s just the budget carriers. The national and long-haul carriers all now offer in-flight Wi-Fi in some format, while British Airways is aiming to update its entire fleet by 2019.
Across the Middle East and Asia, it is a similar story. There are numerous low cost and premium carriers all offering in-flight Wi-Fi. ANA, Emirates, Cebu Pacific, China Airlines, China Eastern, EVA Air, Etihad, Garuda Indonesia, Philippine Airways, Qatar Airways, Quantas, and others allow you to connect to the internet on your flight.
Of course, check each airline for specific details before you fly as to avoid disappointment (or shock at a terrible deal).
One massive misnomer on the global in-flight Wi-Fi market is India. In 2016, the Indian government banned in-flight Wi-Fi, despite assurances from the Indian aviation ministry that the technology is completely safe. Other airlines even went as far as turning off in-flight Wi-Fi to comply with Indian airspace regulations.
In May 2018, the Indian government and Telecom Commission approved the introduction of in-flight Wi-Fi to flights within India, as well as those aircraft within its airspace.
In-Flight Wi-Fi Is a Last Resort
Advances to in-flight Wi-Fi technology mean your chances of getting online while gliding through the sky are decent—but not excellent. In some cases, you will pay over the odds for a poor connection. Times are changing, though, The advent of GoGo’s Ku-band in-flight Wi-Fi will force other hardware suppliers and network operators to further invest in their in-flight Wi-Fi platforms.
Additional investment, development, and research can only be a good thing for passengers that just want to watch a film or send an invoice as they head off on holiday.
Image Credits: A319 (Spirit Airlines), Emirates/Flickr