Inflight WiFi and how it works

We are so used to be connected no matter the location - coffee shop in the morning, office space during the day, even bus stops and trains have WiFi on board. Since WiFi connection is an important part of our everyday routine, we'll take a closer look at the inflight Wi-Fi - another necessity for people on the go.

Let’s start with the types of inflight WiFi


ATG (Air To Ground)

This type of WiFi on planes was created for domestic flights over land. The ATG system requires two antennas installed on the underside of an aircraft that pick up signals from land-based cell towers. The ATG system has a switch that a flight attendant flips to ON position in order to start picking up the cell signal and providing users on the plane with inflight Internet.

As the plane moves, its antennas automatically locate next signal and connect to the nearest available tower, so theoretically there is no interruption to the Internet connection. However over the large bodies of water or a remote terrain, connection may be not as smooth if present at all.

Currently ATG services can provide their users with the speed of 3Mbps approximately. This allows for emails, social networks, and such. Gogo inflight WiFi ATG-4 system can offer up to 10 Mbps, but is not available as widely as the slower ATG-3.


Ku-Band

Ku-Band is a satellite based service used by Gogo, Panasonic and Row 44. Relying on satellites this service covers a much greater area and keeps a connection even when cell towers cannot be reached, e.g. flying over the ocean. A Ku-Band antenna is located on top of a plane in a big dome-shaped “saucer” and is directed toward the transmitting satellite over the course of a flight.

As soon as antenna picks up the signal, users of WiFi on board start getting speeds of up to 30-40 Mbps. A Ku-Band service is much faster than ATG, but the speed will still vary depending on the number of planes connecting to the satellite at the moment as well as the travelling speed of the signal, which contributes to some web elements loading slower than others. Still - much faster overall connection.


Ka-Band

Ka-Band service is also satellite-based and is currently the fastest one available. JetBlue inflight WiFi relies on Ka-Band as well as Virgin America and some United 737s. Ka-Band uses the new ViaSat-1 satellite which is more powerful than those used by Ku-Band and promises an impressive up to 70 Mbps speed to each aircraft. This is the speed like you would've had at home, letting you stream movies, upload photos, etc. Currently, one Ka-Band provider has three satellites providing near global coverage and will soon add a fourth. At the same time four satellites covering the entire globe is not enough to serve the high air traffic corridors. Another provider is planning to expand the Ka-Band coverage by 2020 from just one over North America to a total of five satellites.

Since Ka is not available everywhere, Virgin America airlines decided to use a Ka/Ku hybrid receiver, which allows to switch between Ku- and Ka-Bands based on the best signal strength available.


Exede

The 12 Mbps Exede service is also offered by ViaSat-1 satellite. Exede provides a fast, reliable satellite connection on commercial airlines, including JetBlue and United. Thanks to a partnership between Amazon and JetBlue, passengers who are also Amazon Prime members will be able to stream content on JetBlue flights via Fly-Fi for no additional fee. JetBlue Inflight Wi-Fi is available on all of its A320 aircraft, but only on 2% of the new E190.

Inflight Wi-Fi limitations


Inflight Wi-Fi has a lot of potential and can be very fast, however on the planes it is kept in “auto-throttled” mode so that data is equally distributed among all passenger users. Logically, an inflight Internet connection will be much faster when three passengers are using it, than with 33 passengers connected.

Additionally to speed limitations inflight Wi-Fi has hardware limitations. For example, the ATG service has only front- and rear-facing antennas while the Ku satellite receiver will only connect to one satellite at a time. This means that there will be short breakdowns in connection in between available cell towers and satellites.

The quality of connection will also depend on the direction of your flight. Even though the US generally are covered with towers pretty densely, while flying over states with larger stretches and smaller population you are more likely to experience disconnections. And in the countries with WiFi restrictions due to political policies there will be more stretches without proper connection. Usually your flight crew knows where connection can be lost and they’ll reveal that information at the beginning of the flight.

Even WiFi on board can break, and even that happened due to a minor issue it is not always a quick fix. Non-functional Wi-Fi isn’t a safety-critical aspect of a flight, so unless there’s a major issue, it won't be a cause for delay.

Why is in flight Internet so slow?


WiFi on board technology is in high demand, thus developing fast. However it is no mean feat to keep up with the evolution of WiFi gobbling devices and their ever-growing number.

Satellite connection can offer great speeds, but maintaining and launching the satellites is very expensive, so the technology is lagging behind.

Gogo - the leading inflight Internet and entertainment provider - currently has a monopoly on US inflight Wi-Fi, with a network that covers the whole country and mainly concentrates on Ku satellites because of their number and therefore dense coverage. There are hundreds of Ku band satellites in orbit covering the globe. Gogo covers over 98% of global flight hours with a high level of satellite redundancy. Their new 2Ku service promises better antennas and satellite services, promising up to 70 Mbps – much faster than an average connection speed on land.

BTW, for those who need a better WiFi connection on land, there is a tool that helps building a pretty much perfect WiFi network with an even and stable signal. NetSpot has been serving professionals and home WiFi enthusiasts for over 7 years and is the most popular and highly valued tool for wireless network assessment, scanning, and surveys, analyzing Wi-Fi coverage and performance.

What's the average cost of Wi-Fi on board?


Generally the cost depends on the airline and they say sometimes it may depend on the size of your device - phone, tablet or a laptop. Smaller devices usually consume less traffic, so wireless Internet for them tends to be less expensive. However it might just be a marketing move, where business travelers need to work on their laptops and will pay a bigger buck anyway. It is said that some ways exist letting you trick your laptop into being a mobile device in order to get those lower fees.

If such an option is available you might want to book your inflight WiFi ahead of time at a lower rate.

Gogo service provider, for example, offers monthly packages to those who travel back and forth a lot. Such packages allow not only use WiFi on their respective airline, but also on other participating airlines.

If you are going to inflight Internet check if your airline will take payment with your miles in case you have some unused ones.

Clearly paying a lot of money will not guarantee you the fastest connection, however the technology is constantly evolving and there are things to look forward to. As airlines are upgrading their planes, inflight Wi-Fi is becoming faster and steadier and is available on more and more directions - domestic and international. As Internet on board becomes a more common thing and there will be some competition, prices are more likely to become more competitive as well. Although for now it is quite the opposite: Gogo inflight WiFi is quite monopolistic and the prices have only been going up, not down so far.

Future of the inflight Wi-Fi


Of course offering inflight WiFi is a logical next step in elevating customers experience on board. Adding wireless connection on flights is just the start – airlines that now have onboard WiFi are striving to make it better, faster, and more affordable, we hope.

A report released a few years ago by a the London School of Economics and Political Science in collaboration with British satellite telecom company Inmarsat said that by 2035, high-quality inflight Wi-Fi will likely be omnipresent and profitable potentially generating a $130 billion global market and rake in $30 billion in ancillary revenue for airlines around the world.

There has been a lot going on in terms of airlines and their Internet connectivity: 82 airlines now have some sort of in-flight Internet, a 17% increase from the 70 that offered the service in 2016. The 2018 forecasts show airlines receiving $1 billion in revenue related to broadband, compared to the $60 billion derived “traditionally”, like seat upgrades or baggage fees.

With new satellites being added, this should all change fast, as the broadband quality will increase, and there will be less zones not covered by in-flight Internet connection.

What are you using WiFi on planes for? Is it to connect with friends and family or to finally do some shopping that you've been putting aside? Or are you hoping to do some extra work before an important meeting? Or do you think it is better to get some sleep on flight instead of staying constantly connected? In any case we hope you enjoy your flight!

Check out NetSpot app for Mac - a survey tool for a Wi-Fi network. You can scan and assess the best positioning of WiFi access points to create the best possible coverage in your home or office space, no matter the size.


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