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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Wi-Fi Up in the Air: Airplane Connectivity

In the last article of this special about the aviation sector we talked about how mobiles and other electronic devices are not allowed to use their own data connections to access the internet during flights. Does that mean it is impossible to connect to the internet? Not really: In-flight Wi-Fi does exist and it is a service which is becoming increasingly popular among airlines. We are also beginning to see 3G micro-antennas that connect to satellites being deployed on airplanes, but we will go into detail on this matter another time.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, 60% of the planes used for commercial passenger transportation in the United States are already offering this kind of connectivity. This figure is expected to increase to 85% by 2015. In Spain, providing in-flight Wi-Fi is not a very common practice. Iberia, for example announced its intentions to offer it on its flights, but as of yet little has become known about the details of its deployment.

If we look at Europe on the graphic, we can see how more and more airlines are equipping some of their planes with Wi-Fi technology. Lufthansa includes it as a paid service, while TAP (from Portugal) offers it on transatlantic flights. Others, like Iberia, are in test phase and will probably start equipping their airplanes soon. Of all european airlines, Norwegian Air Shuttle is the one with the biggest part of their fleet equipped with the technology; between 70% and 87% of their planes offer internet access for passengers.

Is internet access a priority for passengers? Common sense says yes (If we look at how we are increasingly living connected) and so does a study published by Honeywell, where 9 out of 10 passengers questioned declared that they would be willing to give up other amenities to obtain internet access during the flight. A third of them would renounce on the possibility to recline their seat and 38% would change their seat. However, another conclusion can be drawn from this survey: 52% of the passengers are dissatisfied with the currently available quality of in-flight Wi-Fi services.

Prices and Speeds, two significant Drawbacks

As we have already seen, many passengers are willing to give up something in order to get internet access, but will they actually be willing pay the price for this connectivity? Iberia, for instance, is calculating a price of up to 5 euros for only 5 megabytes of transferred data. In other words, one euro per mega. With other airlines, cost are somewhat lower, but it remains an expensive service. Gogo, one of the most used in-flight Wi-Fi providers in the United States, offers a rate of 14 dollars for a day pass.

Unlike on other means of transportation like buses, internet access on a plane is usually a paid service at the moment. Only three airlines offer it for free on some of their flights: Norwegian Airlines, Turkish Airlines and Hong Kong Airlines. In-flight Wi-Fi is not seen as a differentiating factor which may cause a traveller to opt for another airline, but as an additional service which has to be paid extra. And if in addition to these high prices we look at the fact that many airports provide free internet access, (in many cases with a time limit, but still free) in-flight Wi-Fi loses attractiveness.

Another big drawback of current in-flight WiFi connections is their speed. The planes equipped with Gogo technology reach no more than 3,1Mbps. For the entire plane, not per passenger. To put this figure into perspective, I am writing this text from a connection with speeds of up to 100Mbps. 3,1Mbps would be equivalent to a normal ADSL connection, but this connection speed is divided among all passengers using the service.

With this kind of speed, basic tasks like answering email, accessing social networks and maybe some web-browsing at moderate speed are possible. But we can forget about downloading or enjoying multimedia content (videos, music, etc.). In part, the high price serves as a barrier to avoid the saturation of the service. If each of the 200 passengers of the same flight would use such a slow connection, even web-browsing would become impossible.
Wi-Fi Up in the Air, How does that Work?

Establishing a wireless network on a plane is not a problem: The difficulty lies in connecting this network to the internet. Therefore it is necessary to establish connections with telecommunication infrastructure on the ground or with satellites directly. There are different solutions for this and every provider chooses the one that best adapts to its needs.

GoGo, for example, has deployed more than 160 antennas all over North-America, which, instead of being designed to send and receive signals on the ground level, are directed towards the skies. The airplanes can connect to these antennas via 3G and offer internet access to their passengers. The big drawback of this system is the maximum speed of the service: the 3,1 Mbps we talked about earlier. GoGo is currently working on improving coverage by adding directional antennas to the planes which could increase the maximum speed to 9,8 Mbps.

However, the future of in-flight Wi-Fi seems to be in using satellites as intermediates to establish the plane-ground connection. There are different modalities depending on the frequency range you want to operate on: via satellite on the Ku band (frequency which is used for television signals, for example), via satellite on the L Band (Singapore Airlines and Emirates use it) and via satellite on the Ka band (used by some radar and traffic control devices). On this last frequency range, GoGo, JetBlue and other companies are planning to launch services before the end of 2015, which will significantly increase the speed they can offer to each passenger,reaching up to 12 Mbps.

So, speeds will increase, but will it become cheap as well? That is the big question. There are solutions out there right now, but, as we have seen, neither the way they work, nor the price for the service is adapted to the real market demand. And you? Have you ever used these services? How much money would you be willing to pay to get internet access on a flight?

Source: MW

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