Internet on an airplane: On the one hand, it’s a goddamn engineering miracle, isn’t it? The ability to be inundated with work emails even while hurtling through the atmosphere in an aluminum tube going hundreds of miles an hour, several miles above the earth is amazing. On the other, it doesn’t really work that well, does it? In fact, it kinda sucks! And they charge you for it! Like, it’s 2020 — where else do you always have to pay just to access a Wi-Fi network anymore?
Alongside Fabian Bustamante, a computer science professor at Northwestern University who’s researched and written about in-flight Wi-Fi, we’re dialing up some answers on how and why all of this works the way it does.
So, internet on an airplane. Where’s it come from?
There are two different systems, and planes that provide internet service will either have one or the other. The first is air-to-ground, or ATG. It works a bit like cell phone service, where the plane connects to towers on the ground. It’s the older and cheaper option, and it’s pretty easy to add the antennae to a plane, which attaches to the underside of the aircraft (it can be done overnight, without taking the plane out of service). “So that’s the good thing about air-to-ground,” Bustamante says. “The bad thing is, of course, that it doesn’t work everywhere! You don’t have a cell tower going over the desert, or the ocean, so too bad.”
The second system is satellite-based. It’s newer, and a lot more expensive, but it’s the way the industry tends to be heading, and service is generally a bit faster than ATG. The planes in an airline’s fleet that fly trans-Atlantic, for example, will be equipped with satellite. It takes more time to install on an airplane, though — in fact, it means taking the plane out of service from four days to a week, which means the airline loses $1 million or more just to add Wi-Fi to the plane. And those domes that connect with orbiting satellites, which are mounted on the top of the plane, add enough wind resistance to increase fuel consumption by 0.3 percent — which adds up over time, and yes, is added to the cost of your ticket.
Stupid question, but why isn’t airplane Wi-Fi free?
There’s two answers to this question: One is kinda obvious, the other one not at all. The first reason, Bustamante says, is that it’s just one more service that airlines can charge you for, like checking bags. Or when Ryanair considered charging a fee to use the toilet (meaning you’d actually purchase that dreaded windstorm of pee and shit fumes that gusts every time you flush the toilet). Even though airline companies seem like rapacious, heartless oligopolies that offer generally miserable experiences, Bustamante does point out that they don’t have huge profit margins — it’s generally about 9 percent, which is typical for U.S. businesses. (JetBlue offers free Wi-Fi, and there are various ways to get free Wi-Fi on your flights, from certain credit card arrangements to deals with, say, T-Mobile and elsewhere. But anyway.)
Here’s the other reason, which Bustamante says is bananas: They price the Wi-Fi service in order to control demand. In other words, they don’t want everyone on the plane to have Wi-Fi, which doesn’t seem like a great business model! Otherwise, they say, it’ll affect performance. Bustamante says that typically, according to conversations he’s had with engineers at in-flight Wi-Fi service companies, 10 percent of the passengers on a plane will use it. In fact, usage never gets past 30 percent, he’s been told, and that’s on flights between New York and San Francisco, which are full of businesspeople.
Um, why don’t they just make the service better?
That’s what Bustamante doesn’t quite understand. “I trust these guys have detected this and figured out what is the demand they can handle, but I don’t imagine the demand on the plane being the biggest constrictor of your performance,” he says. “Because you can put more access points within your plane. This is a cheap thing.”
So why does the quality suck so bad?
A lot of it has to do with the laws of physics, and there’s no easy way around those (“Unless Einstein is wrong, you have no way of improving that,” Bustamante says). Specifically, the issue is the connection between the plane and either the satellite or the ground. It’s a long distance, and the connection is always going to have latency issues, i.e., the time it takes between you clicking on something and the internet responding.
Then there’s a thing called packet loss, which is abnormally huge on in-flight Wi-Fi connections. Packet loss is when data that you send fails to reach its destination on the internet. One percent packet loss or less is good (that’s pretty typical at home or at work). Five to 10 percent is bad. But in in-flight Wi-Fi, Bustamante says that about 18 percent of all connections will have a sky-high (no pun intended) 15 percent packing loss, which is super frustrating to the user.
Is it ever going to get better?
Eh. Bustamante says he thinks bandwidth will improve (that’s the amount of data that can be sent over a network over a given period of time). There’s talk of the various vendors going to 4G and 5G as well. But the latency issues and packet loss will remain, unless someone builds out a whole other system, like a network of low-earth orbit satellites or something.
Apparently it’s a peculiar industry. Bustamante works with telephonic experts and network provider experts all over, and he says the in-flight Wi-Fi folks are a bit different: Unlike most other industries, they don’t collaborate much with outside (academic) researchers, and they don’t produce a lot of their own research. “They’re so overwhelmed by basically trying to manage this stuff, increasing demand and dealing with complaints,” he says. “The first time you get on a plane with Wi-Fi, I remember texting my wife, like, ‘Oh, I have Wi-Fi in the plane. This is so cool!’ And five seconds later it’s like, this is crap. So you go from wonder to complete disappointment. Maybe they’re struggling with that.”
Along with the rest of us whose emails fail to send from 40,000 feet.