Wi-Fi in the sky is taking off, promising much better connections for passengers and a bonanza for the companies that sell the systems.
With satellite-based Wi-Fi, Internet speeds on airliners are getting faster, with airlines finding that passengers expect connections in the air to rival those on the ground – and at a lower cost.
But the evolution of rival systems and standards, such as Ku band and Ka band, pose a big question for airlines: which one to choose?
Equipping fleets can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and airlines don’t want to see their investment become outdated quickly due to newer technology. That’s made some cautious about signing up.
“We don’t want to end up with a Betamax,” said Peter Ingram, chief financial officer of Hawaiian Airlines, referring to the Sony video format that eventually lost out to the VHS standard, leaving many consumers with obsolete systems.
Hawaiian is still considering which system to use.
The drive for in-flight connectivity also has intensified after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. Search teams are scouring parts of the Indian Ocean for the missing aircraft, and it might have been better tracked if a satellite system capable of streaming cockpit data had been installed.
The US market for airborne Internet got a big boost last November after the Federal Aviation Administration allowed passengers to use smartphones, tablets and e-readers throughout a flight, ending a long-standing ban on their use during takeoff and landing.
While the change hasn’t been adopted worldwide, the FAA’s move is expected to lead to greater use of devices, and bandwidth, on planes.
About 40 percent of US airliners already have some form of Wi-Fi, but the race is on to wire the rest of a growing global fleet, and to make the existing connections better.
Satellite technology will speed up onboard connections sevenfold, to about 70 megabits per second next year, fast enough to download a two-hour high-definition movie in about four minutes. Of course, that bandwidth will be shared among all of the users on the flight, which could number 200 or more.
Satellites also will allow service to reach developing markets in Asia and Latin America, and to offer expanded service in the US and European markets.