Wi-Fi has become such a necessity that 45 percent of business travelers who use it would actually be willing to go through the arduous security screening twice in exchange for a flight with a more reliable connection. Sixty-six percent of travelers were influenced by Wi-Fi options when choosing their flights, 22 percent have paid more for a flight just to get Wi-Fi, and 29 percent would give up their confirmed ticket for a standby on a flight with faster Wi-Fi.
With 97 percent of airline passengers having some type of electronic device on flights, it’s no secret that Wi-Fi on planes has become a priority for many. What is less obvious, however, is how the thing works in the first place. An intriguing infographic from Icelandair provided the lowdown.
How Wi-Fi Works on Airplanes
For obvious reasons, planes can’t be hardwired for Internet access. But they can still take advantage of either satellite or air-to-ground technology that lets passengers get online.
Satellite technology involves the use of geostationary satellites positioned up in space. The satellite beams a signal to the airplane’s Ku-band antenna system as passengers happily connect to the Internet.
Unlike ground-based broadband, satellite-based systems provide Wi-Fi service even when you’re flying across the ocean or other large bodies of water. Speeds of satellite systems can reach up to 50 Mbps.
Air-to-ground technology involves the use of 3G cell towers, which beam a signal to the antenna located on the top of the planes. The early versions of air-to-ground systems provided broadband speeds of a scant 3.1 Mbps.
Improvements that involve the use of two antennas atop the plane promise to increase the speeds of some systems to 70 Mbps. One antenna will receive the signal from the towers and transmit it to the plane; the other will send the signal back to the ground.
Airline Wi-Fi Challenges
Speed and consistency remain the greatest challenges for airline Wi-Fi. Satellite systems simply can’t match the same high speeds of fiber-optic cable systems used on the ground. In-flight Wi-Fi can also be slowed down considerably based on the numbers of passengers using it at any given time. The more people connected, the slower the service will be.
Improved satellite antennas, namely the mTenna, are in the works to create a more stable and much faster in-flight Wi-Fi connection. Traditional antennas use a motor to track satellites for connections, whereas the mTenna has no moving parts. It instead steers and locks a beam to the satellite through electronic means.
Not only is the broadband link three to four times faster than that of traditional antennas, but the thinner profile of the mTenna produces less drag when mounted atop airplanes.
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