Wi-Fi in the sky: The good, the bad and the ugly

With in-flight internet options spreading around the world, which services should discerning business travellers try, and which should they avoid?

Three months before 11 September 2001, at a time when mobile phones were greyscale and keyboards were T9, high-speed in-flight satellite internet took off. It was years ahead of its time, and the service – Connexion by Boeing, using Ku-band satellites – folded in 2006, a year before the iPhone was released.

A decade and a half later, it might feel like in-flight connectivity has developed slowly to the tech world, but for airlines and safety regulators, it’s been a remarkably swift journey. Just as touchscreen technology took five years to pass safety checks – particularly the “forehead meeting screen at speed” bits – enabling you to check Facebook on a metal and composite tube hurtling through the sky at the best part of the speed of sound requires certification by hard-nosed authorities.

In particular, the industry spent the best part of a year in 2013–2014 doubling down on the testing of satellite radomes on top of aircraft, after US regulator the FAA decided it would increase scrutiny of whether the “humps” containing antennae were sufficiently protected against the risk of damage to the plane if it hit birds.

Demand can also be affected by the systems that have been first to market. Finnair, for example, notes that the passenger response to its own Wi-Fi trials using an L-band product were lukewarm. Part of that is down to the slow speed of L-band, but part of it is that both willingness to pay and satisfaction with speeds were significantly reduced by competitor Norwegian offering faster Ku-band connectivity for free. 

Yet with the past year seeing satellite installations in earnest, the new problem for travellers – even those who understand the differences between latency and lag or bandwidth and speed – is that the technologies behind the products on offer are rarely advertised when flying.

And it’s the technologies that will determine whether your in-flight internet is the speed of dial-up or fibre.

Air-to-ground or air-to-satellite

In-flight connectivity comes in two flavours: air-to-ground (ATG), which is essentially a 3G dish pointed up to the sky rather than down to the ground; and air-to-satellite, which works in a similar, if more challenging, way to rural satellite broadband five miles below it.

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ATG antennae are the size of a small teacup saucer, attached by a tail-shaped fairing to the underside of the aircraft, whereas satellite antennae are contained within larger radomes on top of the fuselage.

Currently, ATG is available only within 100-200 miles of the continental US and southern Canada, with some coverage reaching Alaska. First-generation ATG maxes out at just over 3 Mbps – shared between you and over 100 of your closest friends aboard an aircraft. If you’ve ever tried sharing a pocket Wi-Fi device with more than a couple of people, you’ll know just how productive that can be.

Second-generation ATG-4, meanwhile, can reach nearly 10 Mbps – better, but once you start dividing by that bloke reading Facebook in row 12, the woman working on her presentation by the window and the Instagramming grandmother in the exit row, it’s less than impressive.

The verdict: ATG is firmly in the “better than nothing” camp. Larger, newer aircraft within the domestic fleets of American, Delta, Alaska, Virgin America and Air Canada (plus United’s flights to California from JFK) are more likely to have faster ATG-4 provision. If you wince at the pricing – one of the few levers Gogo has to pull to reduce demand and improve onboard performance – then others are likely to be dissuaded too, and you’re more likely to have a good experience once you spend the cash.

Much has been written about home-baked air-to-ground solutions elsewhere in the world, with various telcos getting into, and out of, the game of intending to use 3G, 4G or 5G cellular towers pointed skywards. As yet, none of these has actually produced real-world tests, let alone won customers. For the future, it seems that airlines will be looking to the sky, not the ground, for their internet.

State of the market

Satellite connectivity for passengers currently comes in three types – L-band, Ku-band and Ka-band, in order of slowest to fastest – and for birdstrike certification delay reasons, the slower technologies are generally more widely installed.

At the lowest end is OnAir’s L-band SwiftBroadband product, which has, oddly, not fallen foul of trade description claims, since it’s not swift and it’s not broadband. Initially maxing out at 432 kbps down per channel, with the possibility of a dual-channel bond to 864 kbps, the problem is very much one of bandwidth.

Even the 2013-era HDR (high data rate) upgrade only boosted maximum speeds to 850 kbps down per channel and 1.75 Mbps dual, and that’s split between proportionally larger international aircraft, such as the Airbus A380 or Boeing 777, which can seat hundreds of Twitter-hungry passengers competing for the connection.

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The only positive is that L-band is practically global, so even if you have to stick to the very slowest uses of the mobile web – reading your email on your phone might just work – you can do it from Murmansk to Melbourne to Montevideo to Montreal, not just over certain regions of the world. But in terms of modern device use, if you couldn’t do it on a 2012 BlackBerry, you probably won’t be able to over L-band.

Next up: the “actually, this isn’t bad at all” Ku-band, widely available and offered by two key players: Panasonic Avionics, the success story of the business formerly known as Matsushita, and Global Eagle, which is the new name for Row44 and not a military drone, as you might imagine from its name. Global Eagle’s main customer is Southwest, and reports from the sky tend to be deeply underwhelming, with complaints of unusability abounding from a quick Twitter search for “Southwest” and “Wi-Fi”. One to skip.

Gogo, meanwhile, is a new entrant to satellite Ku-band with its double Ku-band system called, appropriately enough, 2Ku, which will boost speeds to a claimed 70 Mbps. Many of US airline Delta’s long-haul flights are due to have 2Ku installed in due course. One to look out for.

Panasonic’s current Ku-band offering, meanwhile, is remarkably usable. Theoretical maxima hit 25-50 Mbps depending on whether the aircraft is in a wide-beam or spot-beam area, but real-world speeds tend to be in the range of 2-5 Mbps down, still better than many rural Britons can hope for from their home connection. 

Expect, however, to pay by the megabyte. While some airlines, such as Emirates, Etihad and other carriers where profit is perhaps not the only motivator, offer day passes for just over £10, the trend is firmly towards MB packages, with 120 MB for £10-15, depending on the airline and its home currency.

Since airlines, perhaps understandably, have not been advertising whether they have L-band or Ku-band Wi-Fi, finding it when booking is remarkably difficult. Many have both, and on the same type of plane. The differing pricing policies by airline also mean that performance can differ widely, even using the same systems. 

Since airlines, perhaps understandably, have not been advertising whether they have L-band or Ku-band Wi-Fi, finding it when booking is remarkably difficult

The best bet for a detailed answer is a flight search site called Routehappy (disclosure: the author used to work there and developed its Wi-Fi rating system) that maps the myriad varieties of aircraft to flight numbers and suggests whether your plane will have the good, better or best kind of Wi-Fi.

A few hidden gems to find faster Ku-band, though, include American’s flights on the Boeing 777-300ER; most of Etihad’s flights, although not the smaller A320s; Boeing 777-300ERs on Emirates and Singapore; and most Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Within the US, United has either Ku-band or the faster Ka-band, except on California flights from New York JFK.

Ka-band is the newest, significantly faster option that can max out at over 40 Mbps per device – not per plane, per device. Even a planeload of aviation journalists trying to make the system fall over on its launch day couldn’t break ViaSat’s robust provisioning. Launch customer jetBlue has more than 70% of its domestic A320 fleet, and all its A321s, outfitted, while United’s Boeing 737 fleet also sees Ku. If you want fast Wi-Fi, fly on those aircraft.

Although Ka-band is currently limited to North America, a new ViaSat satellite will launch in mid-2016 to extend coverage to the North Atlantic, Caribbean and Central America.

Yet the real global future is Global Xpress, a Ka-band constellation from Inmarsat. Its I-5 F1 satellite is in orbit above the Indian Ocean, covering EMEA and much of Asia. Atlantic and Americas satellite I-5 F2 launched successfully – not always a given in this business – from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in February, and will become fully operational later this year. The third satellite, I-5 F3, will orbit the Pacific and is due up “early in 2015”. I-5 F4 is expected to arrive in 2016 and will supplement capacity, most likely in high-demand areas such as the North Atlantic, European and US markets.

Inmarsat – best known to wider audiences for its tracking systems on board the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines MH370 – is keeping the cards holding the names of its customers for Global Xpress close to its chest. As it comes online later this year, look for a flurry of airlines moving to highlight the fact that they have Global Xpress and Ka-band. In the meantime, give it a try the next time you’re in the US.

John Walton is a specialist aviation journalist. Former director of data at Routehappy, he is a regular contributor to Runway Girl Network and comments on breaking news for TV, radio and print outlets. He lives out of suitcases and in airline lounges, and can be found tweeting @thatjohn

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