How Does Wi-Fi Works on Planes?

Constantin Macri 29/04/2023 | 15:46

The internet is everywhere. It is possible to access the internet from the office, subway stations and now, even from a flight. Gone are the days when internet access and air travel were mutually exclusive. In the current digital age, staying connected with the internet world is possible even when one is flying. Many of us know how the internet works, but have you ever wondered how Wi-Fi on planes works? In this article, we will discuss the working of Wi-Fi on planes. 


Air-to-Ground System 

One of the two technologies used in in-flight Wi-Fi is the air-to-ground system. In it, the antenna placed in the aircraft picks signals from the nearest available to the ground. However, it provides the users with a seamless internet connection to a certain altitude. Furthermore, the internet connection will disappear if no ground tower is available in a region, like when flying about a sea or ocean. 

The antennas used for the air-to-ground system are placed beneath the aeroplane. The ground tower projects its signal upward. Subsequently, a connection between the two becomes easier. 

The ground tower sends signals to the antenna through radio waves. Ensuring a steady internet connection is possible by creating a grid of uniformly spaced ground towers. When the airplane moves forward, it will connect automatically to the ground tower it flies above. 

One can expect an internet speed close to 3 Mbps using the air-to-ground system. Even though this internet speed might not be sufficient to perform heavy internet activity, it ensures light activities like reading an email or sending a message. For example, when flying above the ground, Lufthansa provides its passengers with an internet speed of up to 600 kbit/s. Even though this internet speed is low, one can use it to book their accommodations on Marriott, read emails and send messages.

Satellite-based Wi-Fi System 

The second technology used is the satellite-based Wi-Fi system. As the name suggests, satellites play a crucial role in this technology. In it, the satellite directly sends its signals to the aircraft antennas. The air-to-ground based networks also come into play. It is because the satellite first needs to send the signals to a ground-based transmitter. Following it, the beam then is sent to the antennas located onboard. This system is more effective when flying over any water body. 

The antennas participating in the satellite-based Wi-Fi system are placed on the top of the aircraft. Furthermore, these antennas have to keep adjusting their position to ensure that it receives the signals. 

One can expect an internet speed of 30-40 Mbps through the satellite-based Wi-Fi system. However, even though the internet speed is high, one might encounter latency issues due to the vast space between the satellite and the aircraft. Also, this technology is expensive. And therefore, it is limited to a few airlines. 

How Does Wi-Fi Work On Planes?

The data is transmitted to the onboard router of the plane using one of the technologies mentioned above. The passengers can then use their personal devices to connect to the onboard router connected to the aircraft’s antenna to access the internet. When the plane crosses a height of 3,000 meters, the onboard antenna switches to satellite-based services to ensure the presence of an internet connection. 

Why Is Wi-Fi Service Not Available In Every Airline?

One might have noticed that few airlines offer internet service while others do not. The price factor is a crucial determinant of it. Firstly, not all airlines can afford a satellite-based Wi-Fi system because it is costly. Secondly, the antennas which are used in satellite-based Wi-Fi are heavy. Subsequently, the airplane engine requires more fuel to carry the extra weight of the antennas. Therefore, airlines can only run profitability while providing this service when it raises the flight tickets, which can only sometimes be a good idea as the customers always have numerous other options at their disposal.

Do Passengers Have To Pay Extra To Access Wi-Fi On Flights?

The answer differs from one airline to another. A few airlines offer free Wi-Fi to their passengers by default, while others charge an amount for this connectivity. Many times, the airline includes the price of Wi-Fi in the cost of the ticket itself. For example, airlines charge the WiFI cost for business class tickets to provide passengers with a premium service. At the same time, economy passengers have to pay extra to access the Wi-Fi internet. 

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