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How does airplane Wi-Fi work? And will it ever get any better?

GoGo, for instance, has an 81% market share in the US, and increased its consolidated revenue by 46%, yet still managed to post a net loss of $32.7 million. It's never made a profit, and with competition increasing, some are wondering where the money is going to come from.

Other providers are in a similar position, and it leaves them with some real problems. It's hard to justify increasing the service price even more. But they can't cut it to get the volume of customers they need, either, because their onboard systems just don't have the bandwidth to cope.

How plane Wi-Fi works - or doesn't

In the short term, both providers and airlines are left searching for other ways to build a working business model. And the results so far are largely unconvincing.

California-based Row44 appears to think that it can make a lot of money by selling in-flight access to "quality entertainment", for instance. But why it thinks passengers will pay for their pre-packaged content, rather than just use the internet to access whatever they like, isn't entirely clear.

Aeroplane Wi-Fi has some significant issues at the moment, then, which is perhaps why some companies remain very cautious. British Airways, for instance, is reportedly planning a 12 month trial on just a single plane, since it clearly doesn't see a major commercial opportunity just yet.

Picking up speed

There is a major hope for the future, though, in Ka-band (26.5-40GHz) satellites, which promise perhaps 100 times the capacity of regular Ku-band. Satellite company ViaSat explained: "Our high-capacity satellite system delivers more bandwidth than other air-to-ground or satellite IFC systems, eclipsing the quality and speeds of other in-cabin airline broadband services while offering the best value to the airlines."

What level of bandwidth is that? "Our Exede In The Air system can provide a service level agreement that delivers 12Mbps speeds to each passenger." Now that's the kind of performance people might be willing to pay for.

The service doesn't have to come at a premium price, either: Ka-band has so much bandwidth that the cost should fall, as mobile satellite technology consultant Tim Farrar of TMF Associates points out: "ViaSat's Ka-band satellite could reduce the capacity cost by a factor of up to about five times".

How plane Wi-Fi works - or doesn't

We shouldn't take this entirely for granted, of course - Ka-band is a relatively new technology with issues still to be resolved (including latency), and exactly how it will cope when perhaps half a plane full of passengers want to watch movies at Netflix isn't yet clear.

It does seem the closest yet to delivering genuine broadband performance on a plane, though, and with US airline JetBlue launching its ViaSat-based service later this year, plus GoGo and others joining the Ka-band party in 2014, we should all be seeing far more usable, reliable and affordable in-flight Wi-Fi very soon.