Thursday, May 19, 2016

In-Flight Wi-Fi: What to Know Before Wasting Money on It

Long flights are the one of the worst times to be disconnected from the Internet. Fortunately, more and more airlines are now offering in-flight Wi-Fi, allowing passengers to check their emails and surf the web while 40,000 feet in the sky.
So, how does it work? Which airlines offer it? And more importantly, what are the downsides? Is it actually worth the money?

How In-Flight Wi-Fi Works

Have you noticed that after takeoff, your cell phone ceases to have a connection? How do airplanes offer Internet in the sky? The answer to this is pretty simple.
The plane itself is specially modified to have an antenna, which picks up signals from one of two sources: ground stations or satellites.
The first is extensively employed by GoGo, which is arguably the biggest in-flight Wi-Fi provider in the United States. Using a network of 160 overlapping ground stations, cellular signals are constantly beamed into the sky.
Planes connect to these signals by integrated antennas located in the underbelly or under the wing, and the connection is then forwarded through a Wi-Fi router located within the cabin, allowing passengers to get online.
The other method uses communications satellites, like those offered by Inmarsat and Viasat. The advantage of satellite-based in-flight Wi-Fi is that it offers increased reliability, coverage, and speeds. This comes at a significant cost as satellite Internet is far more expensive.
Although it sounds exotic, it really isn’t. People living in isolated rural locations have used satellite Internet for years.
Probably the most exciting example of this is GoGo’s upcoming 2Ku in-flight Wi-Fi system. It uses two antennas — one for upstream traffic and another for downstream traffic — to connect to Intelsat’s constellation of communication satellites.
Unlike GoGo’s traditional air-to-ground (ATG) offering, this is available in virtually every country, as well as over the ocean. Although latency remains a problem, 2Ku offers 70 Mbps speeds. Furthermore, its receivers are smaller, which reduces drag and fuel burn.
But there’s a long way to go before 2Ku becomes the standard. It’s a lot harder for an airline to change ISPs than it is for a home user switching from Comcast to Verizon.
It requires delicate negotiations with providers and the replacement of very expensive equipment, which is hosted on very expensive vessels. As alluring as 2Ku is, the reality is that most airlines will wait until the last possible moment to switch to it.

The Downsides of In-Flight Wi-Fi

The main Achilles heel of in-flight Wi-Fi is availability. Not enough airlines offer it, and those that do — United, SouthWest, Alaska, etc. — are overwhelmingly based in the United States.
But there are other things you need to be wary about before you fork over your credit card.

1. It Isn’t Cheap

In-flight Wi-Fi is ludicrously expensive. You might be used to all-you-can-eat data on the ground, but there’s no such thing at 40,000 feet. Users can expect to spend a lot of money and get very little Internet in return.
Probably the most egregious in-flight Wi-Fi data package I’ve seen was snapped by travel blogger Ben “Lucky” Schlappig, who writes for my favorite travel blog, One Mile At A Time.
Schlappig was flying business class on an Iberia A340 from New York to Madrid, which had OnAir Wi-Fi available, where the cheapest package offered a grand total of 4 MB for about $5. Each additional 100 KB (yes, kilobytes) cost $0.17.
This, obviously, means that using streaming services is a non-starter. If you open Netflix, it’ll be the most expensive episode of Orange Is The New Black that you’ll ever watch.
But when you consider that the average size of most web pages has soared to almost 2.4 MB, you probably won’t get much browsing done either.
Other airlines charge by time spent connected rather than overall data consumed. This makes their offerings a bit more reasonable, but you should expect them to block certain data-intensive services.

2. Most Sites Are Restricted

Your home Internet connection allows you to access whatever content you want. So long as your subscription has enough data, you can watch or visit practically anything. ISPs tend to take a hands-off approach to what their customers get up to, as they should.
But this isn’t the case when it comes to airline Wi-Fi providers, who are faced with limited bandwidth and have to preserve it for the other users on the aircraft. They pose tight limits on what users can do and access from their connections.
Streaming services are generally a no-go. Some airlines even block the teen-favorite social network, Snapchat.
Even more unusual is that some airlines have partnered with the likes of Amazon and Spotify to grant their customers free access to their content.
Take JetBlue, for example, who offers all of their customers a free, basic standard of Wi-Fi. This allows passengers to send email, check Facebook, and do basic browsing, as well as binge-watch Amazon Prime Instant Video.
If you want to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network), play online games, transfer large files, or use a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu, you’ll have to pay an extra $9.
While this setup is pretty unheard of on the ground, it’s incredibly common in the restrictive airline Internet market.

3. Not Fast, Not Reliable

The last problem shouldn’t come as a surprise, but in-flight Wi-Fi isn’t as good as your blazing-fast home fiber connection.
After all, it’s essentially signals sent by either a base station on terra firma or a satellite, to what amounts to a pressurized canister traveling at 370 miles per hour through the upper atmosphere.
While some providers offer relatively decent speeds, if you’re using GoGo’s basic ATG network, you can expect performance that compares to dial-up speeds. That’s because GoGo’s total bandwidth tops out at around 3 Mbps, which is shared between everyone on that plane.
Some planes are fitted with multiple ATG receivers. This means that the connections can be duplexed, thereby resulting in faster connections. But this still doesn’t approach the speed of what you might be used to at home or at work.
You should also remember that you’re sharing the same Internet connection with hundreds of other passengers.
An Airbus A321 in high-density configuration (the one used overwhelmingly by low-budget carriers) holds 236 passengers. A typical Emirates Airbus A380 with a three-class layout (containing economy, business, and first class seats) holds an astonishing 517 passengers.
You’ve got to fight all of them for Internet access.
In short, you need to simultaneously lower your expectations, while also appreciating the technical marvel that is in-flight Wi-Fi.

Which Airlines Offer In-Flight Wi-Fi?

If you’re fortunate enough to live in the United States, you benefit from virtually ubiquitous in-flight Wi-Fi. Rather than list the airlines that do offer it, I might as well mention the major ones that don’t:
  • Allegiant
  • Frontier
  • Hawaiian
  • Spirit
There’s a trend here. All of the airlines mentioned, with the exception of Hawaiian, are low-cost carriers. Offering amenities is not in their business model.
Moreover, installing in-flight Wi-Fi equipment is expensive and relatively bad for aerodynamics. The modus operandi of low-flight carriers is to offer a basic experience for price-sensitive consumers. Anything that increases the cost of tickets is to be avoided.
Outside of the United States, it’s a completely different story.
Intra-Europe travel is dominated by a quadfecta of low-cost carriers: EasyJet, RyanAir, Vueling, and Wizz Air. None of these offer in-flight Wi-Fi, presumably for the same reasons Spirit and Frontier don’t.
Furthermore, virtually none of the more prestigious legacy carriers — like Lufthansa, British Airways, and KLM — offer it on their short-haul routes either, although some airlines — like Air France — are running limited trials.
I found only one airline that offers free Wi-Fi within Europe, and that was Norwegian Air Shuttle.
Despite the name, Norwegian isn’t limited to Scandinavia. Thanks to the European Union’s “Fifth Freedom” rules, it operates a number of routes between various British and Spanish airports, and other continental destinations.
It’s worth adding that when it comes to long-haul flights, European airlines perform significantly better, with Lufthansa, Norwegian, IcelandAir, and Aer Lingus all offering paid in-flight Wi-Fi.
More excitingly, more and more airlines have indicated that they intend to offer it to their customers. The most recent announcement came from British Airways, who will introduce GoGo’s 2Ku offering to their fleet of long-haul widebody aircraft over the coming years.
The less conservative Asian and Middle-Eastern airlines have long embraced in-flight Wi-Fi. It’s available on a range of premium and low-cost carriers including ANA, Emirates, Cebu Pacific, Garuda Indonesia, Philippine Airways, and Qatar Airways.
The biggest aberration in this market is India, where in-flight Wi-Fi was banned by the civil aviation authorities until very recently, and as a result, virtually no airlines currently offer it. Indeed, many airlines actually deactivate their in-flight Wi-Fi as they fly over India so as not to fall foul of the law.
Thankfully Jet Airways will start to offer it from the end of 2016. No doubt other Indian airlines, like Indigo and Air India, will soon follow.

In-Flight Wi-Fi Is a Last Resort

While in-flight Wi-Fi is undeniably tempting, it shouldn’t be the sole determining factor of whether you choose one airline over another. In the vast majority of cases, it’s slow, expensive, and unreliable. It’s not going to radically improve your flight experience.
The aircraft you fly, the food you eat, and the beverages you consume will. To find out the best way to pick an airline, check out this piece I wrote about how technology can transform the traveling experience.
Do you use in-flight Wi-Fi? Have you found it to be worth the money? Let me know in the comments below.
Image Credits: A319 (Spirit Airlines), Emirates via Flickr

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