Wi-Fi in the sky
Wi-Fi in the sky4 minutes
First came the sky warriors—those frequent business travelers, who would pay up to be able to work in the clouds. They wanted things like always-on email access, uninterrupted conference calls and live streaming webinars more than they wanted creature comforts like on-board showers and champagne. Today a solid connection remains especially important for those passengers who want to work as they fly.
Meanwhile consumer demand for inflight Wi-Fi services is growing in leaps and bounds. The airline industry is meeting it with more connected flights, faster connection speeds and new technologies. “With availability of Wi-Fi connectivity continuing to have a direct impact on the overall air-travel experience, adopting the latest onboard Wi-Fi technology remains an effective way for airlines to distinguish their brand,” noted the International Air Travel Association in its 2016 Global Passenger Survey.
Panasonic Avionics Sr. Director for Global Satellite Capacity Planning, Todd Hill, says passengers on the best-connected flights are able to access average speeds up to 12 Mbps in a speed test, with a maximum 20 Mbps burst speed. This offers business travelers better options for both work and play. “Video and audio plays quickly. Once their work is done, business travelers do the same thing we all do. You can actually access Netflix.”
New satellite systems
Much of the credit for improved service goes to a growing fleet of specialized communications satellites. Over the past two years, operators have placed into orbit nearly a dozen high-throughput satellites that use spot-beam technology to carry higher data loads than conventional satellites. For instance, last June Eutelsat launched a new high-powered satellite that connects air routes in a broad geographic area over the Asia-Pacific region.
Satellites have two distinct advantages over the air-to-ground systems that dominated the early days of inflight Wi-Fi.
First, air-to-ground systems rely upon a network of land-based cell towers, each with a limited geographic range. Aircraft flying over an ocean are too far away from towers, so these systems can only service overland flights. Satellites, hovering in geostationary orbit over the water, can bridge that gap between continents. Satellites can provide overland service, as well.
Second, the newer satellites have faster connection speeds than the aging ground networks. That’s translating into lower cost and increased capacity for things like checking Facebook and watching movies.
Airlines are gradually adding connectivity services to their fleets. Global available seat miles (a measurement that quantifies an airline’s passenger capacity) that “have at least a chance of Wi-Fi on board” increased to 39 percent in 2016, a 10% year over year, according to Routehappy. It estimates for U.S.-based airlines alone, available seat miles rose to 83 percent, up from 77 over the same period.
And as our world becomes ever more mobile those numbers are expected to continue to rise. Today just over 5,200 commercial aircraft offer Wi-Fi services. In the next few years, more than 14,000 commercial aircraft will offer Wi-Fi services, representing over half the global fleet, according to Juniper Research. Read more in The Future of Inflight Wi-Fi