Expect huge improvements to fast airline WiFi -- slowly

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Photo Credit: Cunaplus/Shutterstock

If you're tired of sluggish WiFi in the skies, rest assured that the times and technologies are changing rapidly, though actual improvements will probably come more slowly than many passengers might hope.

During 2017, the availability of high-speed WiFi on airliners more than doubled worldwide, according to the Routehappy 2018 WiFi report, which the airline merchandising platform provider released last week. And the trend is likely to continue apace this year.

"The percentage of aircraft is going to shoot straight up in 2018," predicted Routehappy director of airline research Jason Rabinowitz. "I'd say it might double this year."

Among flights that have WiFi, airlines now offer passengers a chance to enjoy what Routehappy categorizes as "best WiFi" on 16% of available seat miles. By comparison, best WiFi was available on just 7.2% of seat miles a year ago. 

Routehappy defines best WiFi as a service that is capable of streaming movies and other media at speeds and qualities similar to what one would expect at home. 

The 129% jump in best WiFi, Rabinowitz said, is a result of in-flight WiFi providers Gogo and Inmarsat becoming significant players in the high-speed WiFi market. That market was previously dominated by Viasat, which provides service to JetBlue and to United's mainline Boeing 737 fleet. 

Today, Delta operates more than 350 aircraft equipped with Gogo's high-speed, dual-antenna, 2KU product, which is also being fitted now on aircraft operated by American, Alaska, British Airways and Iberia.

Gogo claims to have more than 500 aircraft equipped with 2KU and a backlog of almost 1,500 orders. Meanwhile, Lufthansa Group, which includes Lufthansa, Swiss Air, Austrian Airlines and Eurowings, last year launched the high-speed Global Xpress service offered by Inmarsat. 

Buoyed by new satellite launches, Gogo and Viasat are promising service improvements in the coming year. And Global Eagle, which services almost the entire Southwest fleet, says upgrades will enable Southwest to offer consistent high-speed WiFi by the summer. 

Accelerating the airlines' adoption of high-speed service are the exponentially lower costs of bandwidth resulting from satellite upgrades.

According to Dave Davis, the former Global Eagle CEO who last year became a satellite-communications consultant, the cost for an airline to purchase one megahertz per month of bandwidth was between $4,500 and $6,000 just four years ago. But today that cost has dropped to under $1,000. Davis said that providing streaming capability to an aircraft requires somewhere between three and seven megahertz of bandwidth per month. 

"You can do that today for maybe one-fifth or one-sixth the cost you could four years ago," he said. "An airline can buy a whole hell of a lot more bandwidth than a few years ago."

Also providing a boost to the onboard WiFi experience are new satellites launched by industry leaders Intellisat, SES and Via-sat, Davis said. 

In particular, Global Eagle, Gogo and Panasonic Avionics, which counts the widebody fleets of American and United among its customers, will purchase capacity from the SES 15 satellite, which was put into orbit just last month. 

Known as a High-Throughput Satellite (HTS), SES will enable WiFi providers to deliver signals via spot beams targeted at portions of their network that get the most airline traffic. That's a step up from earlier satellites, which deliver signals via much broader beams. [--pullquotes id='Buoyed by new satellite launches, Gogo and Viasat are promising service improvements in the coming year.'--]According to Mike Moeller, Global Eagle's vice president of sales for the Americas, "That will allow us to crank up the network capacity in North America."

Moeller said that until the middle of last year, Global Eagle was not able to provide a streaming-capable service to Southwest. But the speed has doubled since then, enabling streaming on many flights. Helped by the SES 15, the bandwidth capacity that Global Eagle provides to Southwest flights is expected to double again by the summer, enabling passengers to stream video consistently across the Southwest network. 

Meanwhile, Viasat, whose Ka-band satellites operate on a higher frequency than the Ku-band equipment of SES and Intellisat, in November launched Viasat-2, which is anticipated to be operational for commercial customers by the summer. 

Viasat-2 has double the capacity of the company's Viasat-1 satellite, said vice president for commercial aviation Don Buchman. That will enable even faster service than the streaming-capable service the company already provides airlines. More significantly, perhaps, Viasat-2 will enable customers to offer WiFi throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and across the North Atlantic. 

That new capability will enable Viasat to begin working with Israel's El Al airline on its transatlantic Boeing 787 Dreamliner flights and with Icelandair on Boeing 737 Max flights.

American is also using Viasat for its new 737 Max fleet and plans to retrofit 550 Airbus narrowbodies in its domestic and Caribbean fleet with Viasat WiFi, Buchman said.

Still, once Viasat-2 becomes operational, carriers such as JetBlue and United will have to adapt existing aircraft to make use of it on flights to the Caribbean. Buchman said JetBlue has announced that it will use Viasat-2 on new aircraft but has made no announcement yet about retrofitting existing planes.

Despite the advancements in the technology of airline WiFi, the need to retrofit will slow airlines' introduction of high-speed WiFi.

At present, airlines offer better WiFi on 57% of the miles on which they offer WiFi at all. "Basic WiFi," meanwhile, accounts for 27% of airline WiFi service and best WiFi has the smallest share, at 16%. (WiFi still isn't available at all on a full 57% of airline seat miles worldwide, though it is available on 85% of seat miles flown by U.S. carriers.)

Rabinowitz said that airlines using providers such as Panasonic, Global Eagle and Gogo would get a light bump in speeds and reliability from the new SES 15 satellite, but he added that HTS technology can only be fully realized when onboard equipment such as antennas and modems are upgraded.

As a result, he said, for now, Delta, United and American, all of which have or are approaching 100% WiFi coverage on long-haul routes, are likely to continue to offer mid-speed WiFi across the Atlantic and the Pacific.
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Delta, United and American are approaching 100% WiFi on long-haul roues. A previous version had an error in the percentage.

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