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The past, present and future of onboard connectivity

If you’re one of those busy people who somehow manages to fit 30 hours of living into every 24, then you’ll appreciate that being out of touch with emails, cell phone calls and internet browsing for hours at a time while flying can be a serious setback. Thankfully, this might be something of the past.

The dark side of the moon

Airplane manufacturer Boeing began to experiment with inflight connectivity in the early 2000s. The Connexion By Boeing service was designed to deliver inflight broadband to commercial airlines and private jets, but by 2006 the project was shelved due to limited technology, costs and weight issues (hardware weighing 1,000lbs would have had to be installed on an aircraft, resulting in drag and weight gain that would cause operational costs to skyrocket.

Playing among the stars

View of an airport during sunset where an airplane is being prepared before a flight.
View of an airport during sunset where an airplane is being prepared before a flight.

Aviation technology has come a long way since Boeing’s original failed attempts at in-flight connectivity. Today, a number of commercial airlines and private jet charter companies use in-cabin Wi-Fi systems and inflight internet provided either through a satellite or air-to-ground network. For example, the Airbus A380 can provide data communication via a satellite system that allows travelers to connect to the internet from individual IFE (in-flight entertainment) units or their laptops with inflight Wi-Fi access.

It comes as no surprise that airlines and private jet charter services are upping their onboard connectivity offerings in response to passenger demand. A recent Inmarsat survey shows that 60% of customers believe inflight Wi-Fi is a necessity, not a luxury.

Continuous advances in technology, along with changes in the laws that govern the use of electronics on aircraft, are increasing the number of inflight connectivity systems installed on airplanes, as well as technical innovations that deliver improved onboard entertainment and communication experiences for travelers (and voice and text capability for pilots).

In the United States, all electronic devices can now be left on during take-off and landing with airlines that have proven to Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) officials that these devices won’t interfere with their equipment.

Of course, it still isn’t possible to get a cell phone signal 30,000 feet in the air, so it’s a good idea to switch your device to airplane mode – this will avoid draining the battery, which you might not be able to recharge while flying.

Why onboard Wi-Fi is the new sexy

Businessman in an airplane listening to an audiobook on his phone during a flight
Businessman in an airplane listening to an audiobook on his phone during a flight

The reality for commercial aviation is that airlines choosing not to install or upgrade their Wi-Fi offering could begin to struggle. Of the passengers surveyed by Inmarsat, 44% said they’d no longer fly with their preferred airline within the next year if they weren’t offered connectivity that allowed them to stream or browse online uninterrupted.

Right now, airplanes deliver Wi-Fi either using air-to-ground services (connecting to towers on the ground that deliver data to your smartphone or laptop) or, increasingly, a satellite-based service. But there are obvious drawbacks for aircraft trying to use the same equipment that people use for everyday connectivity on the ground. For starters, you’re moving through the stratosphere at around 550mph while trying to hang onto network signals, often bounced from satellites orbiting Earth at 18,000mph.

New aviation technologies are now being developed to improve an aircraft’s ability to deliver fast and uninterrupted inflight Wi-Fi. One example is the ATG-4 – four antenna placed strategically along a plane's fuselage. However the current antenna, which are strapped in a bubble called a radome to the top of the fuselage, mess with the aerodynamics of an aircraft and the drag created burns extra fuel during flight. This, of course, makes planes that fix Wi-Fi equipment to the fuselage more expensive to operate.

Racing to improve on-board Wi-Fi: science to the rescue

The result is that a number of tech and aviation companies are rushing to develop a more aerodynamic radome. A next-gen, ultra-thin radome should fit snugly to the top of the fuselage with no bump at all and utilize beamforming or spatial filtering technology that uses a number of antennas for a more focused and precise signal. Inflight internet company Gogo has developed a 2Ku antenna – the Thinkom ThinAir Falcon Ku3030 – just four inches thick which, when taken to market, will dramatically improve the aerodynamic problems of earlier radome and improve the onboard Wi-Fi experience.

Into infinity and beyond

Businessman working on his laptop on the plane
Businessman working on his laptop on the plane

Ground-to-orbit connectivity is undoubtedly the way of the future, and right now it looks as if that future is satellite. Because although a signal must travel much further to connect to satellites, a satellite connection offers a lot more bandwidth. Connecting to satellites, Gogo’s dual Ku-band antennas are likely to increase inflight speeds to 70mbps (Ku is a specific band of microwave frequencies used in satellite communications, including on the International Space Station).

Another ray of light on the horizon is something called a Ka-band spectrum that allows for higher bandwidth. At least one airline already offers its passengers more advanced Ka-band broadband on its flights in partnership with Viasat, a company that makes broadband super-satellites that it expects will one day deliver mind-boggling high-speed connectivity.

Keeping on top of technology to meet your inflight technology needs

Before booking your next private jet charter flight, speak to our team who will take you through the various options available to meet your on-board connectivity needs.



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