On-board WI-FI: how reliable is it?

Remember the days when you turned off your cell at take-off, knowing you’d have no contact with the outside world until you touched down at your destination? A few peaceful hours of no emails, no texts, no calls… Well, those good old days are now a thing of the past, and with on-board Wi-Fi becoming more and more common, you too can stay in touch at 35,000 feet. While it can sometimes be unreliable, things are looking up. Repeated surveys have demonstrated how much many travelers value Wi-Fi, and airlines are improving their services to meet this need. 

How does on-board Wi-Fi work?

There are two ways to get online while in flight. The first method involves the plane connecting to its nearest ground-based broadband tower. Even though the tower in question will change as the plane flies, the internet connection is uninterrupted, or at least in theory. Over the sea, it’s a different story, with the signal sporadically dropping in and out as the plane struggles to find a connection. The second method involves the plane connecting to a satellite via an antenna on its roof, which then sends a Wi-Fi signal out to passengers through an on-board router. While the satellite method is the more reliable of the two, it is more expensive to maintain.

Which airlines offer on-board Wi-Fi?

From only eight airlines offering on-board Wi-Fi in 2015, the number has grown exponentially. Today, some of the more famous names include KLM, Air France, American Airlines, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, Delta Air Lines, Thai Airways, United Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad. Airlines not currently offering on-board Wi-Fi include EasyJet, British Airways, Flybe and Monarch, although both BA and EasyJet plan to add the service in the not-too-distant future. The in-flight Wi-Fi market is monopolized by Gogo Inc, which partners with 17 airlines and is thought to provide around 80% of the service globally.

How reliable is on-board Wi-Fi?

In short, not very. While in-flight Wi-Fi technology is progressing at a rapid speed, it cannot keep up with the improvements made to phones and tablets. When Gogo launched the first on-board Wi-Fi on a Virgin America plane in 2008, its download speed was 3 megabits per second (mbps), enough for a small handful of people to log on and check their emails. Today, as the number of passengers wanting to connect has increased, typical speeds hover somewhere around 12mbps, wholly inadequate when compared with the average UK home broadband speed, which hit 36.2 mbps in April 2017. And that’s not to mention upload speeds. With Gogo’s current maximum upload speed of 8mbps, mid-flight FaceTime calls are non-starter. That said, journalists on a Gogo test flight in May 2017 were able to post videos to Facebook Live and stream from YouTube; more on that later. While improvements have been promised, we are yet to see this in action. American Airlines even attempted to sue Gogo for its slowness in 2016, stating “Alternative service providers are offering faster, more reliable and less expensive satellite-based Wi-Fi services to airlines like United, Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin Atlantic.” American Airlines later dropped the suit.

How much does on-board Wi-Fi cost?

Perhaps surprisingly, costs of on-board Wi-Fi vary considerably. While some airlines offer the service for free, it seems many are going on the theory that if a passenger is willing to pay for Wi-Fi, they will fork out no matter what the cost. After all, until in-flight Netflix streaming becomes the norm, the service is most likely to be used by business travelers, who can expense it back to their company. Let’s take American Airlines for example, which at the time of writing (July 2017), charge £8 for two hours’ Wi-Fi, £11.50 for four hours and £12.75 for the entire flight. Over on Virgin Atlantic, Wi-Fi for the entire flight costs £14.99, while Delta Air Lines charges £27 for connection via a laptop and £20 for a mobile. While these are some of the more expensive examples, nine airlines – Emirates, Qatar Airways, Qantas, JetBlue Airways, Nok Air, Turkish Airlines, Air China, China Eastern and Norwegian – currently offer at least some of their on-board Wi-Fi for free, although there are time limits and data restrictions to bear in mind.One of the best options is JetBlue, whose Wi-Fi, cunningly named Fly-Fi, is free on all flights, with the airline claiming it is fast enough to stream videos. In April 2017 Qantas added itself to the mix with the announcement that it will offer free in-flight Wi-Fi on-board its Boeing 737 VH-XZB aircraft on routes between Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, with further routes to be added in September 2017. In July 2017, Emirates announced that its First and Business Class customers and Emirates Skywards Platinum and Gold members will benefit from free unlimited data usage on-board its flights, with half-price discounts for Silver and Blue members. Those in Economy will get their first 20 megabytes for free, to be used within two hours.

Are things improving?

Definitely. Reliable Skyping from the air will soon become a reality with the addition of a satellite-based European Aviation Network (EAN), backed up by ground towers to improve reliability, currently in the pipeline for flights across Europe. The satellite providing the service was launched in June 2017, and it is hoped that the system will be operational sometime in late 2017. BA has signed up already, and has promised to roll it out on their European short-haul flights first.

In the USA, Gogo is working on upgrading its systems to the next generation 2Ku service, which will reportedly offer internet surfing at speeds of up to 100mbps, faster than land-based broadband. On a 90-minute Gogo test flight over Vermont in May 2017, download speeds of 53 mbps and upload speeds of 8 mbps were recorded, allowing many of the journalists on board to broadcast their experience on Facebook Live. Keep in mind that this was only a test, and it won’t be until the end of 2018 that the new 2Ku service is available to travelers. While it might still be a while before passengers spend their airborne hours chattering away on Skype, it’s not perhaps as far away as we might think.