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

It used to be possible to make use of the time spent flying to relax, catch up on some reading, or watch a freshly released movie (even if the seats were a little uncomfortable). They are now simply another location where one can log in. 
According to information provided to CNN Business by the airlines, Delta and United each host more than 1.5 million in-flight WiFi sessions each month, while JetBlue claims that their service is used by “millions of passengers” each and every year. Southwest did not want to provide particular figures but did comment that in-flight WiFi is “popular.” 
Alaska Airlines thinks that about 35% of its customers use its onboard WiFi services, which cost $8 and include browsing the web, streaming video and audio, and listening to music.

Full internet access in the skies typically comes at a premium, with Delta charging nearly $50 for a monthly pass on US flights (although the airline plans to switch to a $5 per flight per device offering by the end of this year). Although most airlines will allow certain messaging apps for free, full internet access in the skies typically comes with a premium. According to data conducted by Verified Market Research, the market is now assessed to be approximately $5 billion, and it is anticipated to expand to more than $12 billion by the year 2030. Despite this, there is a significant amount of opportunity for advancement within the industry.

The aircraft manufacturer Boeing first announced their in-flight internet service, which was given the name Connexion, in April of 2000. The following year, in 2004, Lufthansa became the first airline to provide in-flight internet access on a trip from Munich to Los Angeles. In 2006, Boeing announced that it would no longer provide the service, citing the fact that the demand for it “had not developed” as anticipated. Yet, the introduction of smartphones and subsequent efforts by a number of satellite providers and airlines have contributed to a considerable evolution of the technology in the last decade. However, it still has some catching up to do in order to compete with networks found in homes and offices.

The workings of it.

In-flight connections often fall into one of two categories. The first method, which is also called “air-to-ground” or “ATG,” uses antennas attached to the plane to get a signal from cell phone towers on the ground.

More than 1,000 planes in North America are equipped with Intelsat’s air-to-ground technology. This technology was first put on the market in 2008 by Intelsat and American Airlines.

The most significant drawback of this technology is that, in the same way that mobile phone service is dependent on the density and connectivity of towers on the ground, it is dependent on the density and connectivity of towers in the air. As a result, flights that take place over rural areas, deserts, or large bodies of water are likely to experience drops in connectivity. According to Andrew Zignani, a research director at the technological intelligence company ABI Research who specialises in wireless networking, the highest speeds for these systems are now somewhere around 5 megabytes per second. This bandwidth is shared by hundreds of passengers. Statistics from the monitoring app Speedtest show that the average download speed for mobile broadband is about 30 megabytes per second, and the average download speed for fixed broadband is about 67 megabytes per second.

According to what Zignani told CNN Business, the most significant challenges to date have been relating to speed, limited availability, gaps in coverage, dropouts, and pricing.

Because of this, airlines and providers are increasingly turning to satellite-based connections, which are relatively less prone to interruptions. This is because satellite-based connections can more effectively cover the entirety of the flight path from space, and they can also keep the signal active as it travels through the air.

This includes Intelsat, which runs a network of more than 50 satellites and helps airlines like Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Air Canada, British Airways, and Cathay Pacific.

Jeff Sare, president of commercial aviation at Intelsat, told CNN Business that the company expects most regional jet fleets that are getting new planes to switch to satellite-based solutions.

Viasat is yet another important supplier that is used by a number of airlines all over the globe. Viasat makes use of its very own network of satellites in order to provide high-speed connections, and it is getting ready to launch yet another satellite constellation before the year is out. The startup first offered its services to JetBlue in 2013, and since then it has expanded to work with more than a dozen airlines all around the globe.

However, even connections through satellite can now achieve rates of around 100 megabytes per second per aircraft, or approximately 15 megabytes per second per passenger device. These speeds are a far cry from the speeds that can be achieved by terrestrial WiFi.

Many airlines utilise a variety of WiFi providers and kinds of technology depending on the type of aircraft and routes that they need to be deployed on. This is done so that passengers can stay connected no matter where they are in the world.

Newer competitors are also joining the game, one of which is Starlink, a satellite internet service that is managed by SpaceX, which is owned and operated by billionaire Elon Musk. At the beginning of this year, SpaceX and Hawaiian Airlines made public their intention to collaborate on the delivery of high-speed internet through Starlink’s network of low-earth orbit satellites.

According to Zignani, “Some of these systems also employ a hybrid approach, combining the best of both technologies to guarantee optimum coverage based on the exact flight path.” “Some of these solutions also adopt a hybrid approach.” In the following years, he continued, “I think we will see possibilities for all technologies, and recent alliances are indicating that each technology will have its own role to play.” “I believe we will see chances for all technologies.”

There are both difficulties and opportunities.

There are still some gaps between the WiFi that is available on aeroplanes and the networks that are available on the ground, such as those you might use at home, at the workplace, in a coffee shop, or anywhere else.

Even though the majority of airline WiFi connections now feature messaging and social networking activities, and some even have the capability to stream live TV and video, it may be difficult to provide customers with the same degree of bandwidth and connectivity when the aircraft is in the air.

According to Don Buchman, vice president and general manager for commercial aviation at Viasat, “the complexity imposed by the mobility factor is the major point of difference for in-flight WiFi.” CNN Business received this information from Mr. Buchman. “The aeroplane is going at a fast rate of speed, often banking throughout the trip, and frequently flying over wide geographical regions, all of which need continuous coverage in order to provide a high-quality in-flight connection experience.”

Even though satellites get around some of the problems with cellular towers, it is not always easy to expand satellite networks to meet the growing demand for mobile data services.

According to Sare, who works for Intelsat, “it is much faster and cheaper to deploy new cellular towers than to launch a satellite on a rocket.” [Citation needed]

Sixty-five percent of respondents to a poll that was conducted by Intelsat the previous year with airlines, service providers, and equipment manufacturers said that they anticipate an increase in the number of passengers who expect to be connected while flying. The poll’s results show that the high cost of the service and “bad internet connection” are the two main things that keep people from using WiFi on planes more often.

However, businesses such as Viasat, Intelsat, and Starlink are continually increasing that capacity by launching more satellites each year in preparation for the ever-increasing demand for their services. This extra capacity will not only give customers a better online experience, but it could also give airlines new ways to make money and lower prices.

According to Sare of Intelsat, the most important objective is to reduce the amount of time required to bring about such technical advancements. He also thinks that more businesses will work together to help set industry standards.

“We will have achieved our goal when passengers are unable to distinguish between being linked on the ground and in the air.”

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