Our need for always-on connectivity and on-demand entertainment has forced all major airlines to offer in-flight WiFi. But after a decade of promises to improve that experience (which we all now take for granted), Wi-Fi in the Sky is Still a Nightmare.
In order to understand the problems with in-flight WiFi, we first need to know how it works.
Let’s start with the two basic ways airplanes connect to the Internet:
- Air-to-ground (ATG)
This connection is very similar to the one that our cellphones use to receive their signal from cell towers. But instead of pointing down, towers point up towards the antenna on the plane’s belly. But while the infrastructure already exists to support this type of connection, it can be slow and doesn’t work over large bodies of water or in areas with limited coverage.
This is a more recent development that aims to address the primary downfalls of ATG technology by offering the speed and ubiquity of satellite coverage.
In order to maximize the in-flight WiFi experience, newer planes are starting to use both ATG and Satellite connections. And that brings us to an even bigger question: Why are we still complaining about in-flight WiFi? Well, the plane’s connection to the Internet is only half the battle. The plane has to distribute its limited bandwidth to dozens of devices in close proximity to one another—in the same way that the WiFi hotspot at your favorite coffee shop starts becoming absolutely useless when droves of people pile in on Saturday morning to get their fix. Add to that the way that the plane’s cabin amplifies interference, and you’re in for a real nightmare.
We’re hopeful that the experience will improve as the technology and its implementation improve, but regardless of the speeds you get on the plane, you should always consider security when connecting to a shared network, just like with any other public WiFi network. Check out our quick tips for keeping your data safe on public WiFi.