Inflight Wi-Fi: How Does It Work?

Inflight Wi-Fi: How Does It Work?

Inflight Wi-Fi used to be reserved for first- and business-class passengers in full service carriers. The luxury then spread to economy class, too. And now, even budget airlines offer inflight Wi-Fi. It’s an amazing thing, being able to browse travel destinations, scroll through social media and even – if the bandwidth permits – stream movies, all while in the air!

Here’s the rundown of how inflight Wi-Fi works:

The Mechanics



Inflight Wi-Fi is transmitted via two systems: either via ground-based towers, or satellites. First off, let’s talk about the ground-based operating system. Ground-based, also known as air-to-ground (ATG) connectivity, makes use of mobile broadband towers. These towers send signals to an antenna located beneath the fuselage. Essentially, by automatically connecting to the nearest transmitter as it travels into different airspaces, the aircraft becomes a hotspot. Wi-Fi obtained via ATG connectivity is often faster than satellite transmission because of the relatively short distance between the aircraft and ground. However, when traveling over a large expanse of remote terrain, or water, ATG connectivity is likely to be interrupted – there goes your social media updates!

Now, here’s where Wi-Fi via satellite comes in handy. Using a network of satellites in geostationary orbit (35,786 km above the equator), data can be transmitted to and from your device via an antenna attached to the top of the fuselage. Like ATG connectivity, the antenna connects to the closest satellite signal as the aircraft travels. This form of inflight Wi-Fi operates on two bandwidths, narrowband and broadband. Narrowband is sufficient for sending emails, and messaging, while larger files and videos will do better on broadband.

Issues & Implications



Yes, it’s a known fact – inflight Wi-Fi is horribly slow! At an average of 3 Mbps (Megabits per second), inflight connectivity is just a little over one-tenth of the average on-ground connection speed, which can reach up to 28 Mbps in some countries. Thankfully, new ATG-4 technology (which utilizes four antennas, rather than one) has achieved speeds of up to 9.8 Mpbs, and satellite-transmitted Wi-Fi has peaked at about 12 Mbps. While this progress is great news, inflight Wi-Fi still has a long way to go before it reaches the speed and bandwidth of internet on the ground.

Another issue with inflight Wi-Fi is that it comes at a high cost. The technology required to support Wi-Fi onboard is not cheap, and not to mention, the costs of installing and maintaining the equipment are of a significant amount. Additionally, if airlines are to rely on satellite connectivity for Wi-Fi, a substantial cost will be incurred to maintain and upgrade this system.

One major spillover effect caused by providing inflight Wi-Fi is the increased drag and fuel consumption associated with the additional fittings. This would mean that aircraft with Wi-Fi equipment are, to some degree, more expensive to operate.

High-Tech Solutions for High-Tech Problems



The relatively simple solution for reducing drag caused by the antennas is to enclose it within a ‘bubble’-like casing called a radome. Although this does not completely cancel out drag, it can reduce friction, and hence, fuel burn.

To further improve on current inflight Wi-Fi systems, up-and-coming next-generation systems make use of spatial filtering technology, which creates more precise signals using multiple antennas. And, to further reduce the effects of drag, antennas are now being made as thin as possible. The newest 2Ku antennas used by some of the top inflight Wi-Fi providers are less than four inches thick. In the near future, airlines may even switch to a highly powerful antenna, no more than half an inch thick, which is currently in development by a company called Kymeta.

Gogo, the most popular inflight Wi-Fi provider in the United States, plans to roll out a ground-breaking system that relies on one antenna to receive satellite signals, and another to transmit the signal from the aircraft to the ground. This setup, if successful, promises high speed internet connectivity of up to 70 Mbps!

In the next five years, over half of the world’s fleet is predicted to be equipped for inflight Wi-Fi systems; the sector is estimated to be billion-dollar by 2020. So, get ready for the best inflight Wi-Fi experience yet!


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