The Internet in modern society seems ubiquitous like the air we breathe; We don’t really think about it because it’s only there when we need it.
However, the world of airline passenger Internet connectivity still has a long way to go before it can match the reliability and speed of a home network. While the technology isn’t entirely new – Lufthansa was the first airline to offer internet access in 2004 – we’ve now reached the point where it can keep up with modern society’s appetite for content consumption. Cisco’s annual Internet Report shows that the Internet has gained 1.4 billion new users in the past five years alone – with no signs of slowing down. Not to mention, a recent study by Satnews shows that the market for in-flight communication is set to double in the next decade.
Popular Mechanics He recently spoke with Viasat—one of the industry’s leading internet providers for passenger planes—to find out how these Wi-Fi systems work and where they can be improved.
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How can I use Wi-Fi while flying?
Internet access for aircraft is actually much simpler than you might think and comes in two basic forms. The first is what Viasat is known for, using existing satellite internet technology. The other is air-to-ground Wi-Fi, which taps into cell towers on the ground.
“The technology itself is very tried and true,” says Don Buchman, vice president and general manager of Viasat’s Commercial Aviation Business. However, one small headache when adjusting to an aerial internet connection was satellite tracking from an aircraft traveling at over 200mph at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. Viasat uses a network of satellites in geosynchronous orbit, which means they stay in a geostationary position as they rotate.
Viasat currently operates a network of just five satellites – making use of five more satellites to maintain global coverage. With such a limited number of satellites in the air, tracking them accurately is essential for the system to function. Fortunately, modern aircraft already have advanced navigation systems that accurately track their position and heading; Combined with the position of the satellites, simple trigonometry gives the aircraft an estimated target for pointing its antenna. Once the signal is received, it can use fluctuations in the signal to improve the direction of the antenna—these precise calculations and movements can happen thousands of times per second, Vyasat says.
the solution? Adding more satellites can provide more bandwidth and faster speeds – which Viasat has been steadily working on by adding more advanced satellites to its existing network. The brand has already gone through three iterations of satellite, which started with offering 100 gigabits per second (Gbps) with 2G offering up to 250 Gbps. The brand has mentioned that 3G is coming soon, which will offer speeds of up to 1000Gbps.
To offer some perspective, your home access point is likely to offer download speeds of anywhere from 30 to 300 Mbps. Yes, this is much slower than the above speeds. However, it is important to note that satellites must provide Internet access All Aircraft equipped with the Viasat system say current download speeds on their aircraft are around 50Mbps.
Other companies that rely on third parties to supply all the necessary systems—satellite, terrestrial infrastructure, aircraft hardware, and network monitoring—have plenty of red tape to deal with when it comes time to make improvements. This is very important because the demand for faster internet (both on the ground and in the air) is expanding rapidly, which means that service providers will need to adapt to survive. Just think about it, in the past two decades we’ve gone from dial-up Internet to Google Fiber connections with download speeds of up to 1000Mbps. Not to mention the cellular coverage that now provides super fast 5G connectivity.
One of the only alternatives to satellite internet is called terrestrial to terrestrial WiFi. This system is less involved, with planes simply taking advantage of cellular coverage and creating a Wi-Fi hotspot for passengers. However, there are some inherent drawbacks — the main one being the fact that it has to rely on cell towers. This basically makes it impossible to achieve stable Internet access for international flights crossing large bodies of water. Air-to-ground Wi-Fi also struggles to achieve the same download speeds, topping out at around 15Mbps—per Intelsat.
What’s next for Wi-Fi on planes?
We’ve seen airlines show their dedication to providing strong in-flight Wi-Fi internet connectivity to attract customers; Jet Blue is already offering free internet to its passengers and Delta has recently followed suit. A brand that can find a way to maintain optimal capacity density – the amount of bandwidth available to customers in any given situation – will prove incredibly successful.
It all goes back to Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years—pretty amazing considering the fact that it was written in 1965. Although devices have become more advanced, they’re actually becoming increasingly accessible and inexpensive. . While these more advanced devices keep us connected, they require super-fast internet access to keep up with our appetite for content consumption. See below for a quick list of airlines and internet you can expect.
- JetBlue: Free Wi-Fi for all passengers
- Delta: Free Wi-Fi for all passengers (rolling out February 1)
- American Airlines: Wi-Fi for purchase
- United: Wi-Fi for purchase
- Southwest: Wi-Fi to buy
Matt Crisara is an Austin native with an unquenchable passion for cars and motorsports, both foreign and domestic, and as the Automotive Editor for Popular MechanicsHe writes the majority of auto coverage across digital and print. He was previously a contributing writer for Motor1 after his training at Circuit Of The Americas F1 Track and Speed City, an Austin radio broadcaster focusing on the world of motor racing. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he raced mountain bikes with the university’s club team. When he’s not working, he enjoys racing sims, FPV drones, and the great outdoors.