Airplanes have been one of the last locations in the country to receive consistent WiFi access. Travelers have been receiving free WiFi access while staying in hotels, eating at restaurants and sitting in airports for a very long time. The service has become something that travelers expect.
Airlines started installing WiFi systems on commercial passenger planes years ago. This was in direct response to passengers who consistently asked for Internet connectivity while in the air. The current efforts by airlines to provide WiFi connectivity during flights has been met with some success and some criticism.
A major challenge that airlines have to face is the fact that current technology has some very distinct limitations. Planes that are flying in the sky are moving at over 500 miles per hour. This causes problems with signal reception especially when there are atmospheric conditions interfering with broadcasts.
One of the first WiFi providers for airlines used a ground-based system to deliver Internet access. Transmitters and receivers are located on the ground and operate in a similar way to cell phone towers. Most other Internet providers deliver WiFi access to airplanes by using satellites in orbit. Each plane is outfitted with a proprietary piece of equipment that allows customers to access the signal from inside of the cabin.
WiFi on airplanes is not free in most cases. This is because the actual cost of transmitting data through ground-based towers or satellites is actually very expensive. Most major carriers measure how much it costs to transmit a single megabyte of data through the WiFi system. The current costs are very high because of the amount of labor and technology that is required to maintain a two-way signal.
This is one reason why no major airlines currently provide free WiFi access during a flight. Some budget carriers have announced plans to implement free access at some point in the next two to three years although these plans rely on new technologies that are not yet in place.
The majority of passengers flying with the major airlines do not use in-flight WiFi. Some individuals are unwilling to pay for the service or think that the cost of the service is too high. Others people simply cannot get the connection speeds that are normal in the home from a cable modem or digital subscriber line (DSL).
This is because in-flight WiFi is intrinsically different from the WiFi provided in a building or the home. The data that is moving from the Internet to the passenger must pass through different processing points before arriving at a satellite and then reaching the technology on the plane. The actual network capacity in these situations is actually fairly low when compared to home-based WiFi. This can cause frustration for travelers who are unable to load videos or make large downloads because of the limited bandwidth.
Access to WiFi on airplanes is still a relatively new concept. The technology is currently evolving and becoming much better than the systems in use today. Improvements are largely being driven by increasing customer demand. Flights that have functional Wi-Fi access are more popular than flights that do not offer the service. Some customers have even indicated a desire to avoid flights with no Wi-Fi access.
A new generation of satellites will be launched in the coming years that have extended capabilities. Some of these will be able to deliver speeds of up to 12 megabits to every passenger on a plane. The Wi-Fi Internet providers are also working with airlines in order to split costs so that new customers can be captured. The result is that Wi-Fi on airplanes will eventually become a standard and reliable service on domestic and international flights.