Just like flying itself, the internet was a world-shaking invention that changed how we interacted with the world. With how popular the internet has become since; it’s no surprise that airlines offer in-flight Wi-Fi services to their customers. It takes sophisticated technology to beam the internet to you at 30,000 feet, however, which is what we’re covering today.
Why Planes Have Wi-Fi
If you’ve ever been on a flight, you’ve probably been told to turn your phone off or put it in airplane mode. Airlines ask this because unauthorized cellular and Wi-Fi signals could interfere with the plane’s communication systems, putting undue stress on the cabin crew. Instead, many airliners install authorized Wi-Fi that passengers can use, which is clearly identified to avoid confusion.
As for why the airliners offer those internet services – it’s popular. Online media dominates most industries, mainly entertainment, in our standard life. For example, iGaming requires customers to have an internet connection to access their services hosted on websites. So, if somebody wants to play bingo for real money at Paddy Power, they’ll need an internet connection to access the site where those games are stored. The same can be said for streaming TV and messaging through social media. This is to say nothing of the internet’s growing importance for work and activities that aren’t related to entertainment. Frequent travelers have likely encountered busy workers tapping away at their laptop during the journey.
In trying to offer the best in-flight, airlines have started to include Wi-Fi as part of the deal. It usually costs a little more to get access to the plane’s exclusive Wi-Fi network. Interestingly, Boeing cracked online Wi-Fi in 2001, in partnership with other major airlines like Lufthansa. This was their Connexion service, which dissolved in 2006 after, as their then-CEO Jim McNerney wrote in a press release from Boeing, “the market for this service has not materialized as had been expected.” Now that many other airlines like British Airways and Delta offer the service, it’s clear that Boeing was too early.
How it’s Done
As for how it’s done – there are two main methods for delivering Wi-Fi to an aircraft mid-flight. The first is air-to-ground (ATG) Wi-Fi, where a receiver aerial is installed on the plane. Just like how you can create a hotspot using your phone, this creates a mobile flying hotspot in the air that can be targeted by cell towers and other internet-critical infrastructure on the ground. If you guessed that this doesn’t work well at high altitudes, you’d be correct.
The strength of in-flight Wi-Fi is already weaker than you’d get on the ground. When the plane gets to its highest points, the signal may become unstable. When a plane’s internet cuts out as it flies over the sea, it’s because it was relying on ground cell towers.
For the second method, frequent flyers should look in the opposite direction. Many satellites orbit our planet, some of them dedicated to giving you internet access. This comes with its own issues – the signal has to travel further when it’s coming from space, no matter how high or low the plane is. Because of this, most internet-enabled airliners use both methods to have all bases covered.
For satellite connections, companies like Starlink want to send 42,000 satellites up to space. Cracking satellite Wi-Fi technology would give high quality internet to flights, plus rural locations where there’s no pre-existing infrastructure. However, many of the satellites used today are positioned over land, not sea, which causes the same internet blackouts.
All the Starlink satellites currently in orbit around Earth pic.twitter.com/UbuENgkpym
— Latest in space (@latestinspace) February 18, 2023
For both methods, infrastructure is required to improve the service. It’s undeniable that the demand is here now, unlike Boeing’s Connexion experiment in 2006. As Wi-Fi standards improve and projects like Starlink make satellite internet more feasible, relatively slow in-flight internet should become a thing of the past.
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