How Airlines Provide Internet Access at 35,000 Feet and Why Much Work Still Needs

Delta and United each host more than 1.5 million in-flight WiFi sessions a month, the airlines told CNN Business. JetBlue Airways, meanwhile, said its service is used by “millions of customers” each year. Southwest Airlines declined to share a specific number, but said its in-flight Wi-Fi is “popular.”

Alaska Airlines, on the other hand, estimates that on average about 35% of passengers use its $8 in-flight WiFi service, which includes web surfing and streaming.

Most airlines let you use certain messaging apps for free, but full Internet access in the air usually charges a premium. $5 per flight per device provided by the end of this year).However, in today’s market estimated at about $5 billion Projected to grow to more than $12 billion by 2030, according to research firm Verified Market Research, there is plenty of room for improvement.
In-flight internet has been around for nearly 20 years, with aircraft manufacturer Boeing unveiling its service, known as Connexion, in April 2000, and debuting it on a Munich-Los Angeles Lufthansa flight in 2004. Boeing discontinued the service In 2006, it said the market “didn’t materialize” as expected.However, the advent of smartphones and subsequent efforts by numerous satellite providers and airlines have seen the technology advance significantly over the past decade. .


There are two main types of onboard connectivity. The first, known as air-to-ground or ATG, relies on aircraft-mounted antennas that pick up signals from mobile phone towers on the ground.

Intelsat, which began air-to-ground service with American Airlines in 2008, now operates a version of this technology on more than 1,000 aircraft in North America.

One of the main drawbacks of this technology is that, like terrestrial cellular service, it relies on tower density and connectivity, so connectivity is compromised when flying over rural areas, deserts, or large bodies of water. It is possible to These systems currently have a maximum speed of about 5 megabytes per second (shared by hundreds of passengers), according to Andrew Gignani, his director of research at ABI Research, a technology intelligence firm that specializes in wireless connectivity. By comparison, the median global download speeds for mobile and fixed broadband are around 30 megabytes per second and 67 megabytes per second respectively. Recent data From the monitoring app Speedtest.

Zignani told CNN Business, “The biggest issues so far have been speed, limited availability, gaps in coverage, dropouts and price.

As such, airlines and providers can more effectively cover the entire flight path from space and keep signals active as they travel through the air, making satellite-based connectivity relatively less susceptible to interruptions. are increasingly switching to

This includes Intelsat with a network of over 50 satellites serving airlines such as Alaska, American, Delta, United, Air Canada, British Airways and Cathay Pacific.

Jeff Sare, president of Intelsat’s commercial aviation division, told CNN Business:

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Viasat, another major provider used by several airlines around the world, has its own satellite network that offers high-speed connectivity and is preparing to launch another constellation later this year. I’m here. The company started service with his JetBlue in 2013 and now he serves more than 10 airlines worldwide.

But even satellite connections are now capable of about 100 megabytes per second per aircraft. about 15 megabytes per second It’s a far cry from what ground-based WiFi is capable of, per passenger’s device.

Many airlines use a mix of WiFi providers and technology types depending on the type of aircraft and routes they need to deploy.

New players such as Starlink, the satellite internet service run by billionaire Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, are also joining the fray. Earlier this year, SpaceX announced partnership In partnership with Hawaiian Airlines, we will provide high-speed Internet through Starlink’s low-Earth orbit satellite network.

“Some of these solutions also employ a hybrid approach that combines the best of both technologies to ensure optimal coverage depending on the specific flight path,” said Zignani. “We believe there will be opportunities for all technologies in the years to come. Our recent partnerships show that each technology has a unique role to play,” he added.

challenges and opportunities

There is still a gap between in-flight WiFi and the networks you use at home, in the office, in coffee shops, or anywhere on the ground.

Most airline WiFi connections now support messaging and social media features, some even have live TV and video streaming capabilities, but offer users the same level of bandwidth and connectivity over the air can be difficult to do.

“The biggest difference with in-flight WiFi is the complexity added by the mobility factor,” Don Buchman, vice president and general manager of commercial aviation at Viasat, told CNN Business. “Aircraft fly at high speeds, typically bank in flight, and often fly over large geographic areas that require consistent coverage for a high-quality in-flight connectivity experience.”

Satellites also solve some of the limitations faced by cell towers, but expanding satellite networks to meet increasing demand is not always easy.

Intelsat’s Sare said:

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and Investigation In a survey last year by airline, service provider and equipment manufacturer Intelsat, 65% of respondents said they expected an increase in the number of passengers who expect to be connected while flying. The survey found that the two biggest obstacles to increasing in-flight Wi-Fi adoption were the high price of the service and “poor internet connectivity.”

Companies like Viasat, Intelsat and Starlink continue to expand their capacity, but they are launching more satellites each year in anticipation of growing demand for their services. This additional capacity could not only improve the online experience for users, but also provide more avenues for airlines to monetize and lower prices.

“One example is ad-sponsored in-flight WiFi, where passengers can access the WiFi for free and use it as they please,” Buchman said, adding that Viasat will use its connectivity services to manage crew and aircraft. He added that he is also exploring ways to help airlines with features such as: maintenance.

According to Intelsat’s Sare, the number one priority is to reduce the time it takes to realize these technological advances, and he expects more partnerships between companies to help advance industry standards. increase.

“Our vision will be achieved when passengers cannot tell the difference between ground and air connections.”


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