How In-Flight Wi-Fi works?

It’s a no-brainer that we have come a long way in terms our technological advancements. We can now take photos underwater, answer international calls wirelessly, and even send correspondence in less than a second. The turn towards a digital and cloud-based society has proven a lot of advantages for the everyday user. When it comes to taking your work with you on-the-go, this is the best time do it. Wireless internet and portable devices make accessing information and material at nearly any point in time pretty possible. The one place that most people are usually always guaranteed a break from technology and whatever is going on back on the ground has been during a flight. “I’m getting ready to take off so I’ll talk to you once I land,” are words that sound all too familiar to some of us. One of the most challenging places that tech geniuses have been able to conquer has been the air space. Although technology being used up in the air is not a new concept, the idea of using Wi-Fi internet while in-flight is a recent luxury.

Back when smoking on a plane was more of the norm, you couldn’t really get much work done while traveling outside of reading a book or the old-school style of writing with pen and paper. The increase of cell phone towers popping up has made it easier for people to take calls and answer texts while in-flight. But what about actually being able to access the internet, respond to emails, and get real-time work done? Well, we’ve seen advancements in that regard as well.

Today we can see in-flight Wi-Fi being offered on more airlines, with faster capabilities and cheaper costs to the consumer. Although this luxury is not offered in every flight or airline, it is increasing its presence in our aircrafts. There are two main ways that an internet signal is able to make its way 35,000 feet up into the air to reach your mobile device.

The first concept uses ground-based mobile broadband towers. These towers send signals up into the air before they reach an aircraft’s antennas, which are also referred to as fuselage. Just like driving from town to town and connecting from one Wi-Fi signal to the the next, the aircraft will connect to the signals coming from the nearest tower. When done continuously and automatically there is less interruption. There is a catch to this magical system. When the aircraft is traveling over large bodies of water or really remote land, there might be issues with connectivity as the aircraft antennas search for the closest signal. So this not necessarily a flawless system.

The second concept used in achieving this type of Wi-Fi access is through using satellite technology. Like most new forms of technological advancements, the planes can connect to satellites in the geostationary orbit. These satellites work to send and receive signals from the earth. We see this same type of technology used to transmit television signals to weather forecasting equipment. Similar to the functionality of the mobile broadband towers, the aircraft antennas are constantly searching for a satellite signal to connect with. While the Wi-Fi signal is distributed through a router placed directly onto the plane, the information being shared is passed from the ground to the plane and back through the satellite signal. So far, American carriers and airlines have the best services to offer in the business. They offer a much more advanced infrastructure at a cheaper cost to the consumers.

There are two main downfalls with the current state of in-flight Wi-Fi – the cost and the speed. The cost is not a favorable component of the in-flight Wi-Fi because the equipment and technology to make it function is not cheap. One issue is the fact that the antennas that spend their time looking for signals cause a drag in the aircraft’s flight, which in turn increases the craft’s fuel costs. The extra fees are usually passed onto the customers.

The speed factor can be linked to the fact that there are so many devices fighting for signal, not just in-flight but also on the ground. Nowadays, most passengers have at least a cellphone, if not a mobile device like a tablet or a laptop with them on their flight. The more devices fighting for signal, the slower the Wi-Fi. With more advancements, and as the cost decreases, this resource will soon become more reasonable and accessible for everyone on an airplane.