Boarding the plane, you spy a Wi-Fi symbol on the fuselage, or maybe you received a push notification from the airline indicating your flight offers connectivity. You reach cruising altitude, pay to connect, and then . . . wait in frustration as nothing happens. Not always, of course. But not uncommonly either, as Wi-Fi providers, struggling to keep up with in-flight demand, admit congestion happens, slowing and sometimes barring access altogether.
Wi-Fi reaches planes one of two ways: Either by using an air-to-ground system that picks up broadband signals from cell towers, or by communicating with overhead satellites. Both can clog: the former, with too much demand; the latter, when dependent on older, slower satellites. Air-to-ground is also vulnerable to weak signals from too few towers in remote areas and when flying over water.
“It’s hard to say whether it’s just an air-to-ground problem or first-generation technology, but generally there hasn’t been enough capacity,” said Seth Kaplan, the managing partner for Airline Weekly, an industry publication.
In the United States, Gogo pioneered air-to-ground technology in carriers in 2008. But as devices proliferated, the company struggled to keep up with demand, using fees to deter all but the most determined users.
“With air-to-ground, cost was a lever for us to be able to try and get not as many people to use it because of bandwidth constraint,” said Gogo spokeswoman Meredith Payette.
Gogo won’t say how many users can access the Internet at full speed with air-to-ground, but its uptake rate—that is, the number of flyers who used the service, versus the number of total passengers—was 8 percent last quarter. Since Gogo admits to using fees to keep uptake lower, and assuming 8 percent is optimal, then the service may only be satisfactory to 15 out of 215 passengers on a Boeing 737, a popular airplane model.
Satellite technology generally gets higher marks, but the 12 megabytes per second (Mbps) per passenger advertised today by companies like ViaSat, which supplies connectivity to JetBlue, United Airlines, and the new 737 Max jets joining American Airlines’ fleet this fall, still isn’t enough. In 2016, the average Internet speed in the United States jumped to over 50 Mbps.
But promise is coming to the skies next year.
ViaSat recently launched a new satellite, ViaSat2, with more bandwidth and faster delivery—up to double existing in-flight Wi-Fi speeds. The company expects the new satellite to reach orbit and become operational in the first quarter of 2018 and cover the United States, Canada, Central America, the Caribbean, the northern region of South America, and some of the Atlantic Ocean.
Gogo has also launched new global satellite technology that it calls 2Ku, which will allow fliers to stream content with at least 15 Mbps per passenger. Delta has committed to upgrading more than 600 of its planes with 2Ku, already available on about 140 aircraft. Gogo says some 600 airplanes should have it by year’s end, and a total of nearly 1,600 by the end of 2018.
Meanwhile, other airlines are making Internet access free. Earlier this year Qantas announced free high-speed Internet access on its domestic routes, a move Virgin Australia has said it will match.
“We think [free inflight Wi-Fi] will be the trend,” said Don Buchman, vice president and general manager of Commercial Mobility for ViaSat. “Early adopters view it as a way to increase the value of the passenger experience. Just like hotels did 10 years ago where you used to pay for it, now it’s an amenity.”
“Airlines were dragged kicking and screaming into adding Internet service,” because they believed its availability affected bookings, said Gary Leff, an industry expert who writes the blog View From the Wing. Leff gives the ubiquity of free Internet in the air a solid decade before arrival.
For the time being, you might as well go back to stowing that laptop under the seat in front of you and unplugging on your next flight.