WiFi while you fly?

When we’re in the clouds why can’t we be on the cloud? Its cities may be among some of the best connected on the planet, but in the skies above Europe even sending an email comes with prohibitively high costs, if it’s possible at all. Meanwhile, most US domestic carriers offer in-flight WiFi for free. Why are European airlines so slow on the uptake?

Wi-Fi is available on a few planes in Europe, but it’s sporadic. Take British Airways; the flagship carrier manages to offer Wi-Fi as a trial on only one of its 747-400 aircraft, which plies the route between London City and New York JFK. From a fleet of over 260 planes, that’s alarmingly conservative. It’s aimed squarely at those on business on expenses. That’s obvious from the price; £8 for 1 hour, or £15 for 24 hours. The likes of Norwegian Air, Luftansa and Iberia offer similar packages run by companies like Row44, OnAir and GoGo. Most charge by the megabyte.

Your average punter isn’t going to pay charges like that, but why does Europe charge for Wi-Fi while in the US it’s free? It’s largely a question of technology. If you see Wi-Fi offered on a European flight, it’s a satellite service.

And that’s the problem. In the US, Alaska and Canada, there exists an Air to Ground (ATG) network, which uses cellular towers on the ground that together make up a huge continental network. Any plane fitted with a small antenna on the plane’s undercarriage can tap in to that connectivity. It’s cheap, it’s quick to install on a plane, but it’s slow. You can’t stream movies from Netflix, and even providing speeds fast enough for emailing and social media updates isn’t guaranteed. The service is free for everyone on board and it’s universal, but it’s not much good.

Europe’s slow march towards in-flight Wi-Fi may turn out to be a wise decision after all. The continent hasn’t got, and never will have, an ATG network because of water. Imagine taking a plane from London to Frankfurt, but only being able to use Wi-Fi for the second half of the flight, or flying to the Canary Islands and having no connection at all save for an hour while you cross northern Spain and Portugal. ATG isn’t a good fit for Europe, which is why satellite connectivity is the only answer. It’s much more expensive and slower to install, with an antenna on the top of the plane that pans and rotates, but satellite offers much faster speeds than ATG.

So why has inflight Wi-Fi taken so long? Actually, it was the first technology on the scene. I recall using the internet a decade ago while on a flight from London to Tokyo. Sadly, the Boeing Connexion Wi-Fi service I used ceased operation shortly after. The reason? ‘Lack of interest’. With smartphone use now so high, that’s hard to fathom, but it’s true; back in 2005, Wi-Fi was thought of as geeky and strictly for tech-heads. It was also pretty terrible, which is partly why it was stopped. Even the geeks complained.

Times have changed; 86% of us take our own devices on flights according to inflight Wi-Fi provider GoGo. Meanwhile, the World Bank reports that there are now 773 million more flights in 2013 than in 2009. Since Boeing Connexion Wi-Fi disappeared, we’ve become so much more addicted to both smartphones and flying. Not surprisingly, Wi-Fi on planes is now in demand; GoGo reports that 80% of air travellers across Europe and the Middle East want to see Wi-Fi on their flights. It has a vested interest in saying that, of course, but it sounds about right.

There are naysayers who object to the spectre of the person sitting next to them using Skype to make calls for the duration if a long-haul flights. That would be excruciating, but most airlines with Wi-Fi – including BA – already ban the use of Skype and other VoIP services. If there’s anywhere left that needs connecting, it’s aircraft, and not just to help alleviate the boredom of 300 people. The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 last year shocked many frequent flyers by revealing that aircraft are not in constant communication with air traffic control, or anyone else.

For those of us who think of Wi-Fi as a basic utility, inflight Wi-Fi can’t come quick enough. The good news is that it will get both faster, cheaper and more prevalent over the next five years. By 2020 at the latest those flying off for a digital detox will have to wait until they get to their destination.

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