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How Fast Wi-Fi Is Possible on Airplanes

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It wasn't long ago that boarding a plane meant knowing you'd be completely unplugged for the duration of your travel. There was nothing left to do but turn off the lights and read a nice book, nap, or watch the in-flight entertainment system.

However, in this digitally demanding age, an increasing number of airlines are adding onboard Wi-Fi so that customers may share their experiences on social media, and business travelers can make the most of their flight time.

When airplane Wi-Fi was originally offered a decade ago, it was both pricey and slow, with only enough capacity to support a few computers or Blackberry phones. However, with the rise in smart device ownership, airlines are increasingly looking into and adopting more complex connectivity possibilities. How does Wi-Fi work on airplanes?

Satellite Wi-Fi

Ground-based equipment transfers signal to a satellite in orbit, which subsequently relays the signal to the airplane via satellite operating systems.

Although latency issues can occur due to the distance the signals must travel, affecting Wi-Fi speed, this system gives better connections where cell tower coverage is not available, such as over large expanses of water; however, latency issues can occur due to the distance the signals must travel, affecting Wi-Fi speed. OneWeb CEO can help with this, however.

The Ku-Band and Ka-Band satellite operating systems use frequencies of 12-18 GHz and 26.5-40 GHz, respectively. In general, the higher the frequency, the more bandwidth is accessible.

At roughly 30-40 Mbps, Ku-Band connections are faster than air to ground connections; however, because satellite signals are shared with other planes, bandwidth loss may occur depending on airspace density.

Although it isn't the fastest Wi-Fi available, it is the most reliable, thanks to the hundreds of Ku-Band satellites orbiting the earth, which means the airplane's antenna will have a better chance of maintaining a signal. When shared among a large number of users, this bandwidth is usually insufficient for streaming video.

Airlines can get Ku-Band connections from companies like Gogo, Panasonic, and Global Eagle Entertainment.

Ka-Band offers the most modern high-speed satellite Wi-Fi, with speeds of up to 70 Mbps per airplane; but, because there are many fewer Ka-Band satellites in orbit and a narrower geographical coverage, it is currently only appropriate for a few airlines.

JetBlue, for example, claims that their high-speed Wi-Fi is available on itineraries within the continental United States but that availability on other routes may vary.

Although several Ku-Band providers buy bandwidth from different satellite owners, ViaSat (a Ka-Band operator) owns two satellites and plans to launch additional in 2021 and 2022. If successful, these additional satellites will expand ViaSat's coverage across North and South America, Europe, Africa, and the Asia Pacific, making this a true game-changer for the company.

At the moment, airlines must decide which supplier would best meet their needs (for example, domestic versus international route coverage), with some opting for hybrid Ka-Band and Ku-Band receivers to provide wider coverage — but this comes at a premium.

Air To Ground Wi-Fi

ATG is the same operating system that powers your home or mobile devices' Wi-Fi and is the first technology available to provide service to planes. Your smartphone or wireless router receives and transmits radio signals to and from ground-based cell towers via its antenna, and the same is true on an airplane.

An antenna is attached to the underside of an airplane's body, allowing it to receive and broadcast signals to and from cell towers. These signals transfer from one available cell tower to the next as the airplane travels.

The lack of cell towers in remote places of land or wide stretches of water such as seas is an ATG constraint, making this sort of connection only appropriate for land travel with the expectation of occasional black spots here and there.
With an ATG connection, Wi-Fi performance is poor (about 3 Mbps), so it's good for browsing emails and messaging apps but not for bandwidth-intensive activities like streaming or uploading files.

Fast and reliable Wi-Fi on airplanes makes one's journey more entertaining and more productive.

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