Sky-high Wi-Fi a challenge for Europe

Satellites, frequencies and finding the cash to invest is holding European airlines back from installing Wi-Fi, according to an industry expert

Europe is struggling to keep pace with the US when it comes to installing Wi-Fi on aeroplanes, due to technical difficulties and the consequential large sums of money needed.

Jan Remmer ter Haseborg, product engineer for innovation at Lufthansa Technik – the independent division of the German airline which develops and provides Wi-Fi technologies for numerous airline partners – made the claim at Aruba Networks’ annual European conference in Alicante.

Many domestic airlines in the US have adopted Wi-Fi on their craft by using ground-based technology, which makes the process much simpler than the satellite technology used in Europe.

“In the US, there is an on-the-ground solution that reuses the available frequency bands from [now defunct] analogue television,” he said. “This is a much cheaper backbone than the satellite systems we have to use in Europe, and it is easier to install within the aircraft.”

Not only can the US use this spectrum for Wi-Fi signals, but it also has companies willing to stump up the expense of building out the infrastructure.

“Gogo has made up a business model providing connectivity to aircraft. It works as a service provider, so the passenger is paying directly to Gogo, not to the airline. We don’t have a similar system in Europe or Asia,” said Remmer ter Haseborg.

Instead of this ground-based model, coupled with a service provider, Europe is only able to install Wi-Fi using satellite systems, which makes deployment expensive.

Providing connectivity is more costly for airlines in Europe, particularly on short-haul flights, so they have to decide if it is really worth the greater investment, he said.

There is no hiding from the growing trend of Wi-Fi everywhere, and passengers are starting to demand the services, but it will take a lot more effort and a lot of working together to make in-flight Wi-Fi ubiquitous across Europe.

“If installations become cheaper and the initial investment is much less, then there might be some added value for airlines to provide Wi-Fi to customers, even on short-haul flights,” said Remmer ter Haseborg.

Some airlines in Europe are already investing in Wi-Fi provision, but if a provider in Europe were to invest in the infrastructure, as Gogo has in the US, or if satellite prices were to drop, then it might come faster, he said.

“In the US you have the united states; here we have all the different countries which would have to deal with licences and frequencies – it is a lot more complicated and it is really a technical challenge to get it working within all different countries across Europe,” said Remmer ter Haseborg.  

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