In-flight Wi-Fi finally gets a speed boost

NEW TECH: Although Wi-Fi is available widely on US domestic routes, the service is based on air-to-ground technology which can mean the Wi-Fi is slow. But now new satellite-based services are promising better broadband speeds.


    Apr 15, 2016

    In-flight Wi-Fi finally gets a speed boost


    IN-FLIGHT Wi-Fi may sound like a great way to keep in touch with friends and family or catch up on work. But services are often so slow you are better off sticking to the in-flight magazine.

    New satellite-based Wi-Fi services promise to change that, prompting a grab for capacity and customers by companies such as Inmarsat, Viasat, Gogo, Panasonic and Global Eagle Entertainment.

    Wi-Fi on United States domestic routes is already widespread although air-to-ground (ATG) technology can mean service is slow.

    In Europe, a patchwork of regulatory regimes has hindered the creation of substantial ATG networks while satellite-based systems have until now been too expensive for short-haul routes.

    Satellite-based systems can provide coverage across the whole world, including over oceans, where ATG falls short.

    Inmarsat, long a provider of satellite communications to the maritime industry, has spent five years building its Global Express network for aviation.

    Final ground and flight testing is under way, with three satellites already in service.

    "Despite all of the happy talk, the state of play is an inconsistent patchwork," Leo Mondale, president of Inmarsat Aviation, said at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.

    US-based rival Viasat is launching two new high-powered satellites that it says will significantly improve broadband speeds from next year.

    According to a 2016 global report by Routehappy, which rates flight amenities, travellers currently have a chance of getting Wi-Fi on more than one-third of available seats worldwide, with around 60 airlines offering the service.

    But just 6 per cent of the flights with Wi-Fi have connectivity that is comparable to a home broadband service and which allows for data-rich usage such as video streaming.

    It is not just passengers who can benefit from Wi-Fi on board. It can also be used in the cockpit to identify weather patterns, optimise routes and for quick identification and reporting of maintenance issues, said Carl Esposito, vice-president of marketing and product management at Honeywell Aerospace.

    The firm works with Inmarsat to provide the hardware for airlines to connect to the Global Express network.

    In the cabin, having Wi-Fi connected systems also makes for easier upgrades of in-flight entertainment and can bring in more revenues from entertainment, services and advertising.

    But David Bruner, vice-president of global communications services at Panasonic Avionics, said the market has become hyper-competitive as there are too many players fighting over too few planes.

    Panasonic has signed up 3,000 aircraft, with 1,100 in service, he added.

    Gogo's 2Ku has commitments for over 850 aircraft and expects to have 75 installed this year.

    Inmarsat, which has signed up Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines to its network, has over 300 for Global Express and says more are to come.

    "I think it will be a really crazy next 24 months. We'll win some and we'll lose some but it will be interesting," he said.