How Does Wi-Fi or Internet Service Work on Airplane?

When you think about travelling in Airplane, It isn’t really all that great, I mean sure you can get from Mumbai to Delhi in just about 2 hours but unlike driving, where you can pull off the highway and hit up the nearest restaurantm when you get a hankering.

When you are on a plane, you are basically crammed into a 500 miles per hour glorified bus with wings and a bunch of sweaty strangers and if you decided to step out for a snack, well I hope you packed your parachute.

But even though the airlines have been hitting us over the head recently with bag fees and disappointing food offerings, they have at least tried to make flying a little more tolerable by offering us in-flight wireless internet connection.

But how exactly does that Wi-Fi internet connection work, when you are six miles off the ground? Why is it so spotty and is it possible to make it better in the future?

How In-Flight internet Tech Works?

Well, when in-flight Wi-Fi first became a thing in the early to mid 2000s. It usually worked by beaming an internet connection to a transponder attached to the plane using satellites. Similar to how folks in rural areas without cable DSL or fiber infrastructure use satellite dishes to get online.

Air to Ground Transmission aka ATG

Today these systems are still in use along with another system called Air To Ground transmission aka ATG. This takes the form of towers similar to cell phone towers, which have the advantage of being a lot cheaper than satellite internet, but they obviously only work over the land.

I haven’t seen any floating cell phone towers on open barges yet and there are other disadvantages too. Not only do these towers suffer from geographical restrictions but the service they provide, can be painfully slow as anyone who’s ever tried to steam anything on a plane probably knows.

In the US for example, there is only a 3 MegaHertz slice of the radio spectrum assigned to airline internet. So, you compare that to the averag home Wi-Fi connection, we can use anywhere from 20 MHz to 160 MegaHertz.

KU Band Antennas for Speed

So this ends up meaning then that ATG systems don’t provide great speeds, usually somewhere in the neighbourhood of about 5 Mbps. Satellite internet is faster with speeds up to 50Mbps on what is called the KU band.

Which is the same range of spectrum we used to be satellite TV to your house, but with how many people can fly on an average commercial airliner like the Boeing 737 at once, even a 50 Mbps connection can be too slow.

Where something as simple as downloading a simple Document can be frustratingly slow, if lots of passengers are connected at the same time.

One of the reasons aside from the usual corporate breed, that Wi-Fi costs extra on your Flight and current technology also requires airlines to pull bulky antennas onto their planes, these are heavy enough to have a significant effect on the plane’s weight and aerodynamics meaning higher fuel costs.

KA Band Antennas for higher bandwidth

Which are passed along to you, the poor sucker who is just trying to fly home for Christmas or Diwali. but the days of inevitably crappy in flight internet may finally be numbered as major air carriers are now starting to install KA-Band satellite antennas.

Which have the potential due to their higher bandwidth to reach hundreds of megabytes per second, enough for streaming even on a crowded plane, where lots of people are trying to connect. In fact JetBlue in the United States has already deployed the new technology on some of its planes. So, keep an eye out if you will be using them to get to your final destination.

Improving KA Band Antennas

And even better than that actually, some of the new KA Band antennas, such as one being developed by the Kymeta corporation in Washington state are much thinner and less power-hungry than their predecessors.

Encouraging airlines to install them on more planes without having to worry about how they will affect flight performance.

So, maybe one day soon you will be able to live stream your next transcontinental flight and show your captivated audience that just how appalling or appealing the condition of the lavatory really is.

So, let me know how badly you want this Wi-Fi technology in your next Flight, and what are your thoughts over this expanding and improving technology? Comment everything below.


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