In-flight Wi-Fi: where is it and why is it taking so long?

In-flight Wi-Fi
On Virgin America and other US airlines in-flight Wi-Fi is ubiquitous

Back in 2006, I Skyped my wife from a laptop while flying over the icy wastes of Siberia on my way from London to Tokyo. A month later that was impossible, with Boeing ceasing its Connexion Wi-Fi service due to lack of interest.

A decade after they disappeared, Wi-Fi zones at 35,000ft are at last making a comeback – at least in the US. Many US domestic carriers offer in-flight Wi-Fi as standard, but European airlines are seriously lagging behind.

in-flight wi-fi

80% of air travellers in Europe and the Middle East want to see Wi-Fi on planes (Credit: British Airways)

The right stuff

"In the US, in-flight Wi-Fi is available on most internal flights, and Wi-Fi is complimentary to the passenger, regardless of class," says Sergio Galindo, general manager at IT software and hosting company GFI Software. "Some airlines in Europe have not adopted the service to its fullest potential and it is something that we might see appearing on flights." While Wi-Fi is now available on some select flights in Europe, it's incredibly sporadic.

It's not that the non-US world doesn't want to get online while they fly. A recent global survey conducted by GoGo (a global aero-communications service provider that offers in-flight internet) revealed that 80% of air travellers across Europe and the Middle East want to see Wi-Fi on their flights.

Of these, 38% are able to expense in-flight services, says GoGo, more than any other region, making these passengers a huge untapped resource. The very fact that GoGo underlines this point tells you everything you need to know about in-flight Wi-Fi – Europeans are paying for it, and will continue to do so even as it spreads.

Sergio Galindo

Sergio Galindo, general manager at IT software and hosting company GFI Software

A retro experience

"Ten years ago, internet access was still viewed as being geeky," says Andrew Ferguson, editor at Thinkbroadband, who thinks that a decade ago the demand for Wi-Fi just wasn't there. "However, everyone now wants to be able to check social media and as a result, more and more of us are constantly checking our mobile phones … sitting on a plane without internet access feels like a retro experience."

It definitely does, and though the chance to switch off from work and relax with a movie is cherished by some folks, for business travellers in particular, it's a bind. Many are on the way to meetings that demand research and preparation, and increasingly staff are made to fly economy class.

However, Wi-Fi in the sky is a big challenge. "Providing an internet connection at 30,000ft is faced with a whole different set of challenges than providing a fibre optic cable connection on the ground," says Galindo. "Because the technology wasn't mature enough [a decade ago] many airlines were getting inundated with complaints about bad Wi-Fi service, and it was starting to impact their brand reputation."

From a hardware point of view, Wi-Fi in the noughties was also unsustainable. "The required hardware on-board weighed nearly 1,000 pounds, which made operating costs unreasonable," says Phil Penuela, Head of Global Consumer Insights at GoGo. "Ultimately, the cost of the technology at the time was higher than customer demand."

GoGo's ATG network

GoGo's ATG network uses an antenna on the plane's undercarriage to connect to a network of cellular towers on the ground

The return of in-flight Wi-Fi

Since the technology has improved and costs have decreased, in-flight Wi-Fi is back – just about. "Smaller antenna design is a big factor as previous designs required larger bulges on the aircraft body, increasing fuel costs," says Ferguson. "Consequently, completely flat, streamlined solutions are just around the corner."

GoGo has long been connecting business aircraft, but in 2008 when the service launched on commercial aviation, the iPhone had just been announced and social media was starting to explode. Since then, of course, smartphone usage has skyrocketed. "This has forced airlines to listen to customers and begin implementing in-flight Wi-Fi," says Penuela.

Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance tech, travel and space journalist based in the UK. He’s been writing regularly for Techradar since it was launched in 2008 and also writes regularly for Forbes, The Telegraph, the South China Morning Post, Sky & Telescope and the Sky At Night magazine as well as other Future titles T3, Digital Camera World, All About Space and He also edits two of his own websites, and that reflect his obsession with travel gear and solar eclipse travel. He is the author of A Stargazing Program For Beginners (Springer, 2015),