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

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

Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines estimates that, on average, about 35% of its passengers use the $8 onboard WiFi that includes web browsing and live streaming.

While most airlines will allow certain messaging apps for free, full internet access in the sky usually comes at a higher price, with Delta charging roughly $50 for monthly pass on US flights (although the airline plans to switch to $5 per trip per device by the end of this year). But with a market right now Estimated at around $5 billion And it’s expected to grow to more than $12 billion by 2030, according to research firm Verified Market Research, there’s 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 on a Lufthansa flight from Munich to Los Angeles in 2004. Boeing Service stopped in 2006, saying the market for her “didn’t materialize” as he had expected. But the rise of smartphones and subsequent efforts by a host of satellite providers and airlines have helped the technology evolve significantly in the past decade — though it still has to catch up in order to compare with home and office networks.

How it works

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

The main drawback of this technology is that, like mobile phone service on land, it depends on the density and connectivity of towers, so flights over rural areas, deserts or large bodies of water are likely to suffer from a drop in connectivity. The maximum speed of these systems is currently around 5 megabytes per second (which is shared by hundreds of passengers), according to Andrew Zinani, director of research at ABI Research, which specializes in information technology and telecommunications. By comparison, global average download speeds for mobile and fixed broadband are around 30Mbps and 67Mbps, respectively, according to Recent data From the Speedtest monitoring app.

“So far, the biggest issues have been speed, limited availability, gaps in coverage, leaks, and price,” Zinani told CNN Business.

This is why airlines and service providers are increasingly turning to satellite-based communications which are relatively less prone to outages because they can more effectively cover the entire flight path from space and keep the signal active as it moves 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.

“With the modernization of regional aircraft fleets, we expect the majority to move to satellite-based solutions,” Jeff Surrey, head of commercial aviation at Intelsat, told CNN Business.

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

But even satellite communications are currently capable of about 100 megabytes per second per aircraft or About 15 megabytes per second Per passenger device, it’s a far cry from the speeds a terrestrial WiFi can do.

Many airlines use a mix of WiFi providers and types of technologies, depending on the type of aircraft and the routes it must be deployed on.

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

“Some of these solutions also adopt a hybrid approach, combining the best technologies to ensure optimal coverage depending on the selected flight path,” Zinani said. “I believe we will see opportunities for all technologies in the coming years, and recent partnerships show that each technology will have its own role,” he added.

Challenges and opportunities

There are still gaps between WiFi in the air and the networks you might use in your home, office, coffee shop, or anywhere on Earth.

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

“The biggest point of difference with in-flight WiFi is the complexity that the navigation element adds,” Don Buchmann, Vice President and General Manager of Commercial Aviation at Viasat, told CNN Business. “The aircraft travels at a high speed rate, is usually banking in flight, and often flies across wide geographies that require consistent coverage for a high-quality in-flight connectivity experience.”

And while satellites solve some of the limitations that cell phone towers face, expanding the satellite network to keep up with growing demand is not always easy.

As Sare of Intelsat says, “It is much faster and cheaper to deploy new cell towers than launching a satellite on a rocket.”

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in exploratory study By Intelsat last year for airlines, service providers and equipment manufacturers, 65% of respondents said they expect increases in the number of passengers expecting in-flight connectivity. The survey indicated that the two biggest barriers to increased in-flight Wi-Fi use are the high price of the service and “poor internet connectivity”.

Companies such as Viasat, Intelsat and Starlink continue to expand this capacity, however, they are launching more satellites every year in anticipation of the growing demand for their services. This added capacity will not only improve users’ online experience but can also give airlines more avenues to monetize and lower the price.

“One example of this is advertising-sponsored WiFi on board so that passengers can access and use WiFi for free as they want,” Buchmann said, adding that Viasat is also exploring ways to use its connectivity services to help airlines with functions such as crew management. and planes. Maintenance work.

The biggest priority, according to Sare of Intelsat, is to shorten the time it takes to realize these technology advances, and more partnerships between companies are expected to help drive industry standards forward.

“Our vision comes true when passengers cannot distinguish between contact on the ground and in the air.”

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