How airlines give you internet access at 35,000 feet – and why it still takes a lot of work

Delta and United each host more than 1.5 million in-flight WiFi sessions per month, the airlines told CNN Business, while JetBlue said its service is used by “millions of customers” each year. Southwest declined to share specific numbers, but said in-flight Wi-Fi was “popular”.

Alaska Airlines, meanwhile, estimates that about 35% of its passengers on average use its $8 onboard WiFi services, which include web browsing and streaming.

While most airlines allow some messaging apps for free, full internet access in the sky usually comes at a cost, with Delta charging nearly $50 for a monthly pass on US flights (although the airline is considering switching has a $5 offer per flight per device by the end of the year). But with a market that is currently estimated at around $5 billion and is expected to reach over $12 billion by 2030, according to research firm Verified Market Research, there is plenty of room for improvement.
In-flight internet has been around for nearly two decades, with aircraft manufacturer Boeing announcing its service, known as Connexion, in April 2000 and debuting it on a Munich-Los Angeles Lufthansa flight in 2004. Boeing discontinued service in 2006, saying the market had “not materialized” as expected. But the advent of smartphones and the subsequent efforts of a host of satellite providers and airlines have seen the technology evolve significantly over the past decade, though it still has some catching up to do. compare to home and work networks.

How it works

There are two main types of in-flight connections. The first, known as air-to-ground or ATG, relies on antennas attached to the aircraft that pick up signal from cell towers on the ground.

Intelsat, which launched air-to-ground services with American Airlines in 2008, currently operates a version of the technology on more than 1,000 planes in North America.

The only major downside to this technology is that, much like ground-based mobile phone service, it is dependent on tower density and connectivity, and therefore flights over rural areas, deserts, or large air planes. water are likely to experience declines in connectivity. Top speeds for these systems are currently around 5 megabytes per second (which is shared by hundreds of passengers), according to Andrew Zignani, research director at technology watch firm ABI Research, which specializes in wireless connectivity. In comparison, median global download speeds for mobile and fixed broadband are around 30 megabytes per second and 67 megabytes per second respectively, according to recent data of the Speedtest monitoring application.

“To date, the biggest issues have been speed, limited availability, gaps in coverage, dropouts and price,” Zignani told CNN Business.

This is why airlines and providers are increasingly opting for satellite connections which are relatively less susceptible to interruptions, as they can more efficiently cover the entire flight path from space and maintain the signal active when moving through the air.

This includes Intelsat, which has a network of more than 50 satellites serving airlines such as Alaska, American, Delta, United, Air Canada, British Airways and Cathay Pacific.

“As regional aircraft fleets are renewed, we expect the majority to migrate to satellite-based solutions,” Jeff Sare, Intelsat’s president of commercial aviation, told CNN Business.

Viasat, another major provider used by several airlines around the world, uses its own network of satellites that provide high-speed connectivity and is preparing to launch another constellation of satellites later this year. The company launched its services with JetBlue in 2013 and now serves more than a dozen airlines around the world.

But even satellite connections are currently capable of around 100 megabytes per second by plane or about 15 megabytes per second per passenger device, far from the speeds of which terrestrial WiFi is capable.

Many airlines use a combination of WiFi providers and technology types, depending on the type of aircraft and the routes on which they are to be deployed.

New players such as Starlink, the satellite internet service run by billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, are also entering the fray. Earlier this year, SpaceX announced a partnership with Hawaiian Airlines to provide high-speed Internet access through Starlink’s network of low-Earth-orbit satellites.

“Some of these solutions also take a hybrid approach, combining the best of both technologies to provide optimal coverage based on the specific flight path,” Zignani said. “I think we will see opportunities for all technologies in the years to come, and recent partnerships show that each technology will have its own role to play,” he added.

Challenges and Opportunities

There are still gaps between in-flight WiFi and the networks you would use at home, in the office, in a coffee shop, or anywhere in the field.

While most airline Wi-Fi connections now support messaging and social media functions, and some even have live TV and video streaming capabilities, providing users with the same level of bandwidth bandwidth and connectivity in the air can be a challenge.

“The biggest point of difference for in-flight WiFi is the complexity added by the element of mobility,” Don Buchman, vice president and general manager of commercial aviation at Viasat, told CNN Business. “The aircraft moves at high speeds, typically tilts during flight, and often flies over large geographic areas that require constant coverage for a high-quality in-flight connectivity experience.”

And while satellites solve some of the limitations that cell towers face, expanding the satellite network to meet growing demand isn’t always straightforward.

As Intelsat’s Sare puts it, “It’s much faster and cheaper to deploy new cell towers than to launch a satellite on a rocket.”

Air traveler complaints up 270% from 2019 levels
In a investigation by Intelsat last year among airlines, service providers and equipment manufacturers, 65% of respondents said they expect an increase in the number of passengers who expect to be connected in flight. According to the survey, the two main obstacles to increasing the adoption of inflight Wi-Fi were the high price of the service and a “poor internet connection”.

However, companies such as Viasat, Intelsat and Starlink continue to expand this capacity, launching more satellites every year in anticipation of growing demand for their services. This additional capacity will not only improve users’ online experience, but could also give airlines more ways to monetize and reduce prices.

“One example is advertising-sponsored in-flight WiFi so passengers can access WiFi for free and use it as they wish,” Buchman said, adding that Viasat is also exploring ways to use its connectivity services to assist airlines with functions such as crew and aircraft management. maintenance.

The biggest priority, according to Intelsat’s Sare, is to shorten the time it takes to achieve these technological advances, and he foresees more partnerships between companies to help push the industry standard forward.

“Our vision is realized when passengers cannot tell the difference between being connected on the ground and in the air.”

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