Is There Wi-Fi on Planes?
With on-the-go internet increasingly becoming a necessity for the public, the question of why all airlines have yet to implement such a service, still remains. A recent survey by Monarch Airlines for example has, perhaps unsurprisingly, shown that the most desired in plane technology from British consumers is the widespread introduction of Wi-Fi (with 77% of those questioned wanting to see internet connectivity on every flight).
While there are a few notable exceptions leading the charge, such as Norwegian and Emirates, in-flight Wi-Fi has yet to be implemented on a number of European flights. In the US, the situation is somewhat better, with an estimated 40% of flights offering coverage, but the most immediate issue in both cases is one of limitations of the existing technology.
Currently the on-flight internet connection is primarily routed via ground-stations to the planes’ on-board distribution network. This is the same system used to provide mobile internet to smart phones on the ground via 3G or 4G, and works in a similar manner. However a connection which may be more than acceptable for a single device in a city location is then shared throughout every device connected on-board (and potentially any other nearby aircraft that happen to be sharing the signal) meaning speeds quickly drop to those of the dark ages of dial-up, or worse. This lack of bandwidth is the current explanation for high prices, low availability and poor service, but the situation looks to be improving.
The alternative over this ground-based system is for an airline to instead provide a connection via a satellite, specifically new, higher-frequency models that operate on Ka or Ku-band technology. These systems, it is claimed, will dramatically boost individual in-flight connection speed. The American airline JetBlue has recently announced plans to roll-out satellite-based connections on its entire fleet by late 2016, with suggested speeds of up to 30Mbps per device. If these claims are delivered, satellite based systems will provide Wi-Fi suitable for even the most data-hungry user across the entire flight, as they are without the disconnection suffered when a flight leaves land and loses data from land-based stations.
For European travellers there has been the announcement from German companies Deutsche Telekom and Inmarsat that they are aiming to provide broadband connection across the continent’s airspace by 2017. The announcement was followed by the Lufthansa airline claiming that they will be the first adopter of the service, beginning in the summer of 2016. While a step towards a universal in-the-air internet service, excitement should be tempered by the fact that no connection speeds have been advertised as of yet, and the service will also incorporate ground-based systems as well as the more promising satellite connections.
Whilst there is hope of a future with fast in-flight internet connections, concerns have been raised regarding the potential security risk for having such a universal system in place. A recent report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has stated that, as on-board internet distribution systems will be directly linked to the flights’ other communication networks, a potential weakness is inherent. The GAO’s cybersecurity experts claim that despite security measures such as firewalls, no software can ever be completely safe from circumvention and hacking. This leads to the possibility that a new form of terrorism could become feasible which requires no more than a laptop to gain control of a plane.
It seems then that for the moment at least, the answer to the question, ‘Is there Wi-Fi on planes?’ remains to be, ‘sometimes’.