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When the signal reaches the plane, it is accessed and spread via several points inside the plane.
When the signal reaches the plane, it is accessed and spread via several points inside the plane.

Aviation

Onboard WiFi – when the sky’s NOT the limit

The arrival of high-quality inflight WiFi is the successful conclusion of a long journey.

This year, WiFi connections that match the quality that most people are used to in everyday life will be available on most of SAS’ short-haul flights.

The airline has teamed up with Viasat, a Southern California-based communications company that has been at the forefront of inflight WiFi since its inception. 

While most communication companies offering inflight WiFi lease capacity from satellite companies, Viasat claims to be unique because it has its own satellites and can therefore offer much more -capacity at a better value. This enables Viasat to provide one of the best WiFi -services on the market.

But the history of inflight WiFi has not had a straightforward trajectory.

Viasat satellites have revolutionized the concept of inflight WiFi.The first inflight WiFi services began appearing in the early 2000s. SAS was a pioneer and adopted Connexion by Boeing, an inflight connectivity service, in 2004. However, in most cases (including SAS’), the services were discontinued.

Cicek Cavdar, Assistant Professor at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, is currently leading a project to take the performance of inflight WiFi beyond today’s expectations.

“The history of attempts and failures to establish onboard WiFi connectivity can be dated to the early 2000s,” she says. “Finding functional business models was a significant early challenge and the main reason that many projects failed.”

Among the problems were the costs of providing services and establishing workable pricing models.

And a major technological challenge in the early days was the capacity of air-to-ground mobile systems. Even if just one plane was connected to a ground-based station, the already-limited bandwidth had to be shared by all connected travelers onboard. This often resulted in congested networks and a very poor user experience. If several planes connected to the same ground station, it could be even worse.

But perhaps the biggest early challenges were the limited market and limited mobile services. “It was only useful for passengers with laptops,” Cavdar says. “Mobile phones with WiFi were still relatively rare. And the early services only connected to Yahoo or Blackberry.”

Don Buchman, VP Commerical Aviation, ViasatDon Buchman, Vice President of Commercial Aviation at Viasat, says, “Before iPhones, the use case was completely different. But then there was a paradigm shift.”

It is perhaps no coincidence then, that commercially successful inflight WiFi services began appearing around 10 years ago, around the same time that the first smartphones were launched.

Buchman says that Viasat was ahead of its time in terms of understanding the shifts that were taking place. “We saw that the real need was not just to offer email and text messaging capability, but to enable people to do what they were doing on the ground – why should it change in the air?”

So when the company officially launched its inflight WiFi service in 2012, passengers could stream movies, videos and music as if they were at home.

And as the market for inflight WiFi grew, the technology improved, too.

In 2011, Viasat launched its first satellite, ViaSat-1. It had about 100 times more -capacity than the next best satellite in orbit and, so the company claims, provided far better service than air-to-ground-based technology. The company’s fourth satellite, ViaSat-2, was launched in June. It is expected to offer around double the capacity of ViaSat-1.

Cavdar points out that the first inflight WiFi systems provided 2–3Mbps per airplane. Today, things are very different.

“In the US, the Internet quality we offer in the air is similar to what we offer our residential customers,” Buchman says. “It shows how far we’ve moved the needle when it comes to satellite-based internet.”

The US has been leading the way in inflight WiFi, which Buchman says is due to particulars in the US market. “It’s a homogenous market,” he says. “A single country with a lot of long flights.”

Everyone now, including my 85-year-old mom, can get online without an issue

And Cavdar points out that the US has a harmonized air space where licensing is far simpler than in the multi-state situation elsewhere, in which each country applies different regulations.

“In the US, it was also the case that after one airline launched, the others felt at a competitive disadvantage without inflight WiFi, so other airlines quickly followed suit,” Buchman says. “In -Europe, you never had that first mover. And in the post-recession of 2008, there wasn’t a lot of free capital. But it’s changing in Europe now.”

Gunilla Ait El Mekki is the Entertainment and Connectivity Manager at SAS. “SAS was one of the inflight WiFi pioneers,” she says. “After our initial Connexion by Boeing service in 2004, we reintroduced a new service on some of our short-haul fleet in 2011 and on the long-haul fleet in 2015. But we felt we needed a stronger system, something that comes up to travelers’ expectations of connectivity. Viasat provides that.

“We wanted to close the gap in the customer journey,” Ait El Mekki continues. “Flying has been a disruption for passengers, but it shouldn’t be and no longer needs to be. Our new service helps our passengers make the most of their time throughout the entire journey. People think WiFi is a normality now and so it should be on airplanes, too.”

Buchman agrees. “I think the biggest change has been the democratization of the Internet. Everyone now, including my 85-year-old mom, can get online without an issue. It has become a fabric of life. And the expectation is for it to be the same in the sky.”

Of course, what we will be able to do with our phones in the future is anyone’s guess. But with companies like SAS and Viasat always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, there seems to be no reason why we won’t be able to do it on airplanes. 

Last edited: May 16, 2018

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