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  • How does airplane WiFi work ?

    When you think about it, air travel isn't all that great. When you are on a plane, you basically crammed unto a 500MPH glorified bus with wings and a branch of strangers in it. Then if you decide to step out for a snack, I hope you packed your parachute 😉.

    But even though the ailines have been hitting us over the head recently with "Beg" fees and disappointing food offerings, they have at least tried to make flying a little more tolerable by offering us in-flight wireless internet.

    How exactly does WiFi work when you are 6 miles off the ground? Why is it so sporty? And is it possible to make it better in the future? Well when In-flight WiFi first beecame a thing in the early to mid 2000's it usually worked by beaming an  internet connection to transponder in the plane using satelites.

    Airplane transponder

    Similar how folks in rural areas without cable,DSL or fibre infrastructure use satelite dishes to get online. Today these systems are still in use along with another system called Air-To-Ground transmission or ATG. This takes the form of towers similar to cellphone towers,which have the advantage of being alot cheaper than satelite internet. But they obviously only work on land (i haven't seen any floating cell phone towers yet) and other disadvantges too. Not only do these towers suffer from Geographical restrictions, but the service the provideed can be painfully slow.

    air-to-ground(ATG) transmission

    In the U.S for example there is only 3MHZ slice of the radio spectrum assigned to airline internet. So you compare that to average home WiFi internet connection,which can use from anywhere between 20 - 160MHZ. This ends up meaning that ATG systems don't provide great speeds usually in the neighborhood of 5Mbps.

    Satelite internet is faster with speed up to 5OMbps on what is called the KU Band. Which is the same range of spectrum used to bring satelite TV to your house. But with the number of people that can fly on an average commercial airline like Boeing 737 at once even a 50Mbps can make something as simple as downloading a document frustrating slow if lots of passengers are connected at the same time. One of the reasons Wifi can cost extra on flight.

    Current technology requires airlines to also put bulky antennas on their planes these are heavy enough to also have a significant impact on the plane's weight and aerodynamics,which translates to more fuel cost which is also passed on to you who is just trying to go home for christmas.

    The days of inevitably crappy flight internet might finally be over as a major air carriers are now starting to install KA-Band satelite antennas,which have the potential due to their high bandwidth to reach 100Mbps. Enough for streaming even on a crowded plane where alot of people are trying to connect.

    Jet blue in the united states are already displaying the new tech on some of it's planes.So keep an eye out if you would be using them to get to your final destination.

    Even better than that, some of the KA-Band antennas such as one being developed by the  Kymeta corporation in washington state are much thinner and less power hungry than their predecessors encouraging airlines to install them without having to worry about how they will affect flight performance. So maybe one day soon you might be able to stream on your next continental flight.

    Updated on 5:14-am November 11,2019


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    Tags: airline WiFi communication

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