Demystifying The History of In-flight Wi-Fi

Internet Wi-Fi has been in existence for a long time but only recently became available on flights. A little over a decade ago, entering an airplane was akin to entering a black hole. People then ‘vanish’ till they arrive at their different destinations.

But in recent years, in-flight Wi-Fi lost its novelty and is now increasingly in demand. Travellers do not just want to stay connected to the internet, but they also want it to be as seamless as in their houses and offices.

Now the main question is, why the long wait? Why did in-flight Wi-Fi take a while to become accessible on airplanes? This article will explain these questions with the history and future of in-flight Wi-Fi.

What Does In-flight Wi-Fi Mean?

In-flight Wi-Fi is an internet connection that allows travellers to access the internet while flying. It is an internet service via wireless ethernet that connects air travellers to the world below and keeps them afloat in the on-goings.

To get connected, one needs a Wi-Fi-enabled device such as a smartphone, tablet, and laptop to send and receive signals together with the airplaneā€™s antennae, a satellite, and a ground station.

This connectivity has become a vital part of our lives such that most people would prefer having reliable Wi-Fi in the air to no snacks and less legroom. But how exactly did it come about?

History of In-flight Wi-Fi

Over the last decade, in-flight Wi-Fi has gone through numerous phases of technology. It all started in the early 2000s when Boeing introduced the Connexion using the Ka-Band satellite model.

The Connexion project, previously called Aviation Information Services, and later Global Mobile Services, kicked-started in 2004 with Lufthansa as the first passenger airline to offer in-flight Wi-Fi. However, the connection was reportedly slow and patchy and could only be accessed with laptops as Wi-Fi-installed smartphones were not yet out.

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Unfortunately, the 9/11 terrorist attack in U. S disrupted this attempt causing other interested local airlines to pull out. Boeing consequently lost a lot of money and subsequently disbanded the project in August 2006.

Sadly, the Chairman and CEO of the aircraft company reportedly said that the market for the novel invention was not as prepared as they had thought. However, the effort sowed the seed of insight in the aviation industry, especially with the release of the first iPhone by Apple in the subsequent year.

2007 – 2018

Following the exit of Connexion, a surge of in-flight internet providers began to key into the idea Boeing left behind. That marked the growth of in-flight Wi-Fi. Among those internet providers was Viasat, an internet company that had a significant upper hand in that it was the supplier of the bandwidth connectors used in building Connexion.

Due to the above advantage, along with the creation of the Skylinks Communication System, Viasat was skilled up to begin its passenger airplane in-flight internet service in December 2013 with JetBlue Airways.

JetBlue’s innovative Ka-band internet service, dubbed Fly-Fi and provided by Viasat, offered a significant improvement in the quality and performance of in-flight Wi-Fi. It demonstrated for the first time that passengers could connect to the internet while in the air without competing for traffic with other passengers.

Furthermore, the invention of smartphones with Apple’s iPhones helped the evolution of in-flight Wi-Fi. Mobile phones were now able to support Wi-Fi and connect to the internet system. Don Buchman of Viasat also stated that with the new service provided by Viasat, passengers would enjoy fast-paced internet just like what is available on the ground.

Since then, Viasat has upgraded to ViaSat-2, kicked-started in 2017, and offering much more speed and coverage with more airlines and even the marine sector keying into the internet service.

Other internet companies like Gogo, for example, are also up and running with their pin versions of modern in-flight Wi-Fi.

In-flight Wi-Fi In Present Times

Today, in-flight Wi-Fi is not much of a luxury anymore. Air travellers are in constant demand for internet connections similar to what is obtainable on the ground.

One of the main challenges airlines face in providing in-flight Wi-Fi is how to offer high-performance in-flight Wi-Fi to its passengers at reasonable market prices. One good solution to this challenge is sponsorship.

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Through sponsorship from businesses in any sector, airlines would probably satisfy customers’ demands. Retail advertisements, discounts, and promotions are a few ways to achieve this goal.

A good example is a partnership between Amazon and JetBlue, one of the few airlines that 9ffers free in-flight Wi-Fi to its customers. The Amazon company advertises and offers a 30-day free trial of its Amazon Prime to passengers connecting to the internet on JetBlue aircraft.

Ultimately, everyone benefits from this venture. Amazon can sign up more customers to Amazon Prime while JetBlue can continue offering Viasat’s high-quality in-flight Wi-Fi service to its passengers for free.

On the other hand, internet service providers are constantly improving their internet technology to supply high-capacity in-flight Wi-Fi to the aviation industry.

Prominent Service Providers Of In-flight Wi-Fi

So basically, in-flight Wi-Fi service providers are internet companies that supply airlines with in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity via air-to-ground (ATG) Wi-Fi networks or satellite-based technology. A few popular service providers in the world include but are not limited to the following:

  • Gogo
  • Viasat
  • Panasonic Avionics Corporation
  • Thales
  • Inmarsat

Airlines Popular For Offering In-flight Wi-Fi Service

Most airlines invested in this Wi-Fi technology to remain competitive while satisfying customers. Some of these airlines include:

How In-flight Wi-Fi Function On Airplanes

There are two types of connectivity for in-flight Wi-Fi onboard aircraft.

  • Air-to-ground (ATG), and
  • Satellite.

Air-to-ground (ATG) System

ATG is a land-based system that operates with signals between the aircraft and solid ground. Antennae positioned underneath airplanes send and receive transmissions to/fro the cell towers below. These transmissions move with different cell towers as the airplane travels.

The drawback of ATG is the unavailability of cell towers in distant parts of the land or over oceans and seas, limiting this sort of connection to land travel exclusively, with the possibility of occasional network outages.

Satellite-based System

The satellite-based system makes use of satellite technology. The antennae placed above airplanes transfer signals to and fro geostationary satellites connected to land-based stations.

This Wi-Fi system enables stronger connections in areas where cell tower coverage is limited, such as above seas and oceans. But because of the distance involved, latency problems may occur, reducing internet quality.

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Satellite Wi-Fi is of two types;

  1. Ku-Band, and
  2. Ka-Band.

The Ku-band utilizes higher frequencies than the Ku-band.

The Future of In-flight Wi-Fi

With technological developments, in-flight Wi-Fi is developing. In the future, there may be greater demand for free Wi-Fi onboard airplanes, just as there is on the ground. For many in the industry, the aspiration is ‘gate-to-gate’ connectivity, in which passengers have continuous internet access from departure to arrival.

“Passengers will get an experience akin to what is obtainable in their houses,” Peterson of Viasat said of upcoming in-flight Wi-Fi technologies.

Passengers are not the only ones that will benefit from this advancement. An interconnected aircraft enables aircrew to better service to its passengers. Immediate monetary transactions, detailed and timely flight transmissions ahead of arrival, and more individualized service for passengers are all possible with speedy, dependable internet access.

Conclusion

Over the last decade, in-flight Wi-Fi has evolved from low-performance broadband satellite-based systems to land-based systems and returned to high-performance satellite-based systems like Gogo’s 2Ku, GX Aviation, and Viasat’s third satellite installation.

As more airlines join the in-flight Wi-Fi trend, passengers expect free, speedy, and reliable internet connection for browsing, emailing, updating their social networks, streaming, and of course, business transactions.

Also, with the modern technologies cropping up via internet service providers, the sky is not necessarily the limit but rather the starting point.

Commonly Asked Questions

Is In-flight Wi-Fi Available On Airplanes?

Yes. Airlines now offer in-flight Wi-Fi onboard their fleets via internet service providers.

Do Airlines Offer Free In-flight Wi-Fi?

Yes. You can get free Wi-Fi from airlines like JetBlue, Qantas, and Lufthansa.

Can I Stream Videos On Airplanes?

Yes. You can stream videos onboard airplanes depending on the airline you are flying.

References

  • https://www.yourdictionary.com/in-flight-wi-fi
  • https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2011/06/in-flight-internet-the-view-from-35000-feet-and-three-years/2/
  • https://technologyreviewer.com/how-does-airplane-wifi-work-history-of-inflight-wifi/
  • https://www.viasat.com/about/newsroom/blog/in-flight-wi-fi-origins/
  • https://scandinaviantraveler.com/en/aviation/onboard-wifi-when-the-skys-not-the-limit
  • https://www.key.aero/article/seamless-skies-complete-story-inflight-connectivity
  • https://www.businessinsider.com/how-airplane-wifi-works-2018-9?r=US&IR=T
  • https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/how-wifi-works-on-airplanes/article30999529.ece
  • https://www.viasat.com/about/newsroom/blog/100-years-in-the-making–the-evolution-of-inflight-entertainment/
  • https://www.phocuswire.com/10-years-on-airlines-begin-to-see-the-benefits-of-inflight-wifi
  • https://thepointsguy.co.uk/2015/11/how-in-flight-wi-fi-works/
  • https://upgradedpoints.com/travel/airlines/how-airplane-wi-fi-works/
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