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The Science of Wi-Fi on Airplanes (onezero.medium.com)
157 points by Anon84 1 day ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments

> Surfing the internet at 35,000 feet is now something that we expect on flights.

Not only do I not expect this, I actually dread the time when it is ubiquitous and free. Flying is really a unique experience in that it forces you to sit still, disconnect and entertain yourself for a substantial period. This has a meditative element for me: I have time to not be updated, to gaze, to talk to strangers, to be bored... All the things people used to do in the long long ago. It gives flying a kind of sublime quality because it prepares me mentally for arriving at a completely different place than the one I left. It's not just a continuous Instagram fueled frenzy like any other day. Of course I can choose to not use my phone/internet at any time, but it's so much harder that it loses its entire allure: Instead of just disengaging I'm constantly fighting the urge and telling myself "No!". Once it's available on board I won't be able to resist.

If you can’t disconnect on the ground I don’t see why spending a few hundred bucks to fly to a distant destination should be your lifeline to disconnecting. A plane ride was never intended to provide you with this service.

Everyone has different ways to spend their leisure time and that can include connecting. I wouldn’t want to impose my own beliefs on someone else by telling airlines not to give away WiFi.

And if you want to disconnect, there are plenty of ways to do so on the ground. You could go to a nice restaurant and leave your phone in the car. You could take a walk in the park with your phone at home. Or you could just not use Instagram or Facebook.

As it stands, few airlines will just give you WiFi for free anyway, but there have been times when its availability has saved my ass.

> If you can’t disconnect on the ground I don’t see why spending a few hundred bucks to fly to a distant destination should be your lifeline to disconnecting. A plane ride was never intended to provide you with this service.

The same logic applies to vacations. Someone saying they enjoyed something in a remote location does not mean that is unavailable locally - it's that you discovered it because you were in a different context.

Much like disconnecting while flying.

>If you can’t disconnect on the ground I don’t see why spending a few hundred bucks to fly to a distant destination should be your lifeline to disconnecting.

There is a difference between "disconnect" and disconnect.

> Of course I can choose to not use my phone/internet at any time, but it's so much harder that it loses its entire allure: Instead of just disengaging I'm constantly fighting the urge and telling myself "No!". Once it's available on board I won't be able to resist.

Sounds like you're struggling with addiction. Rather severe addiction.

I sorta get why this might work for you. I mean, if you're powerless to control your own behavior, but an external happenstance (like being stuck on a flight) forcibly breaks you away from it, then.. well, I can appreciate why you'd value that.

Still, it's weird to see an internal conflict being used to argue for external policy. By analogy, it'd be like the American government wanting to clamp down on global gasoline production to drive up gasoline prices to push American citizens toward electric vehicles. I mean, if the US were a monolithic entity with a consistent will, then it'd seem like it could just will itself into electric-vehicle adoption without such manipulation, but since the US isn't a monolithic entity with a singular, consistent will, parts of the US (e.g., the government) might take steps to limit the whole (e.g., by reducing its access to cheap gasoline) in order to gain leverage on other parts of the US (e.g., everyday citizens).

Likewise, it sounds like the executive part of your mind wants to limit your environment's Wi-Fi availability to gain leverage on parts of your mind that'd want to binge on Instagram.

Which I comment on just to frame the issue. It's harder to be sure on how to respond. I mean, in principle, I tend to feel that people should have self-control; that, if they want to break away from Instagram, then it's on them to do so rather than relying on environmental factors to forcibly break them away. But I wonder if that's perhaps too simplistic?

That sounds like a personal problem. :-) I hate droning along for 15 hours on an airplane and I look forward to WiFi being a ubiquitous offering. I can find things to do, or people to communicate with, to make the monotony more bearable.

Yep the worst flights I've been on are the cross country ones where I know my battery is low, there's no in seat AC outlet, and there's no wifi. Six hours of just staring at the seat in front of me, joy.

Buy a Kindle? I always use long flights as a great excuse to catch up on my reading.

To be completely frank, it sounds like you have a problem and your ideal solution would be to create a different problem for everyone else. If you were an alcoholic, would you support a ban on liquor sales in your locality?

I don't think he's suggesting a ban or anything like that, just raising a valid point about losing the connection from other people who are not in one's own bubble?

I think you are emphasising my point by your adverse reaction to someone who doesn't agree with you?

It also sounds like a mostly American thing. I fly several times a year and I am yet to be on a flight with any form of Wi-Fi available, it's quite exotic to me stil.

I think it's more a not-American thing. Norwegian and Emirates have free WiFi, along with several other non-US airlines.

It's only free in business on SAS, BA, Air France and many, many others.


My experience with Emirates wifi has been terrible though even when paying.

I flew to South Africa in October. My flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg had free messaging. On my ipad I could use google hangouts, whatsapp, email and google drive. I was chatting with my wife in Hungary and my daughters in the US for the whole flight. It was amazing. I also got some work done. This was a KLM flight.

Have some discipline and don't use it. Let the rest of us have it.

There’s an irony in your response.

> it forces you to sit still, disconnect and entertain yourself for a substantial period.

This observation is biased by your own opinion. Even without Wi-fi, it is already typical to have inflight digital entertainment... and for most people, long haul flights without distraction can amount to quite the ordeal. And of course, what about the professional, and what about families with kids that are more likely would cause a nuisance without being distracted?

My boss expects me to work on flights with my 15" Macbook Pro, economy seat, and poor WiFi to use SaaS applications. My productivity is dramatically less but that's when I have the most downtime.

Does your boss pay for business or first class? Using a laptop in a coach seat these days is highly awkward.

Edit: Oops, you did say economy. Have another passenger take a photo of you typing on a 15 inch laptop in economy to share with your boss. I literally can't do it...the seat in front of me prevents the screen from opening enough to be visible.

I'd have to put the keyboard on my chest, the screen flat on the tray table, and do T-Rex style typing.

Especially a 15” laptop. I can’t do it and I’m not that big.

Sounds like you need a new boss, not a lack of WiFi on airplanes.

That's fine for short haul or business class but if you're squashed into a seat seemingly designed with a child's dimensions in mind for half a day, Wi-fi is the opiate that makes flying bearable.

If you want this go on a cruise for a week and disconnect yourself. Don’t buy the WiFi package, tell everyone you’re in the middle of an ocean, gone.

I don’t get why people treat flying so ceremoniously; it’s a glorified bus ride. I still got shit to do, and I need access to resources. It is a waste of time to burn 6 hours when flying cross country for nothing. I could get a lot done in that time.

I travel for work 20 years, 6-7 internationals per year (or more) and I can tell you 1) its not always cross country and 2) sleep is possibly the most important thing you can do, if you need to move timezones and be alert and working when you get there.

I do work in the air. I've had other passengers complain about my keyboard volume. I also now pace it, police it and don't try to over-do it: The spam-can is not condusive to good work outcomes always. Its ok for reading and reflection, and oftentimes they don't depend on connectivity.

A cheaper way would be to just go camping.

I agree with parent, planes are a great space to focus for me. I don't think there's anywhere else that I've done so much heavy reading. The lack of connection and the white noise of the engines make it the perfect place to zone in (or zone out!).

> Don’t buy the WiFi package

I've been on two cruises, and in both cases, the WiFi was ridiculously expensive. Like...$1.00/minute expensive.

Which makes no sense that they'd charge per minute and not per megabyte.

Even the WiFi package didn't mean you got unlimited WiFi, it just got you a bulk discount on minutes.

Cruises come with a lot more baggage than just disconnecting yourself for a week.

Most of why WiFi on aircraft sucks is because airlines went too early. To be fair, they had to guess. The better Ka band satellite experience wasn't ready when most airlines made their initial choice, so most of them went with either Ku band satellite or air to ground cellular. Both have either technical or cost barriers to deliver enough bandwidth.

And, the cost for the hardware, FAA certification, and long aircraft downtimes to get it all installed and working was really high. So they have to recoup all that before upgrading.

JetBlue guessed better with the timing, waiting until it was ready, so their experience is better, and pricing isn't terrible as compared to others.

I feel like Southwest made a decent compromise. They went Ku, but use a separate transponder to give away TV and movies at no charge, and a small slice of bandwidth to give iMessage and whatsApp for free. The paid wifi is slow, but comparitively cheap.

The airlines that went with AirCell/GoGo are the worst of the lot. Nothing for free, and the pricing is outrageous given the experience. Most airlines should be about ready to upgrade all the old stuff soon, so the experience should improve. Low orbit tech would help even more.

Alaska uses GoGo and they also give away iMessage for free. A weird side effect is that sometimes you get more than just free messaging. Every time I've used it, I get full Internet access (though it sure is slow). My wife's phone only ever gets iMessage. No idea why I get the accidental free upgrade.

do you have tmobile? I think the service provider is related. on a side note, I've always gotten iMessage to work on southwest flights without paying. and on united you can get to certain google hosts without a paywall. I think that's all I'll share on here for now

Nah, Verizon customer (well, T-Mobile now, but that changed a couple weeks ago, my last flight was over a month ago).

One trick that you can do if you want a free hour of GoGo WiFi is try numbers until you land on a T-Mobile subscriber number. Not exactly ethical, but neither is the price they charge for a cross-country flight of WiFi ;-)

As someone who practically lives on airliners equipped with GoGo I’m curious what else you have...

What Google hosts work? Would creating a tunnel to something on GCE work?

Yes. Or at least, it did for awhile. I set up a small server as a SOCKS proxy and it worked great.

I used to do OpenVPN on port 53 (DNS) when all the various airplane wifi first launched. suuuuper limiting (that 230 MTU tho) and eventually blockaded. then there was the google XSS-proxy-redirect that I abused for awhile until google removed it (also hella limiting). then i decided all future jobs must pay for my airplane wifi habit, and my experience has gotten so much better (though there are some other tricks I find when i've got nothing to do.. like the redboot bug that gave me free IFE on a long haul flight :)

I used both of those as well. They were good while they lasted. Nowadays I find its best to board a GoGo equipped aircraft with a list of T-Mobile numbers. When you find one with a T-Mobile One plan you’ve hit gold.

LOL well first of all, I don't think a TMO plan is required just an unlimited plan (I have a grandfathered unlimited plan without the throttling that lets me GoGo) but second, and most importantly, I'm going to tell EVERYONE about this because you sir are a genius.

So they have to recoup all that before upgrading.

They aren't making the decision in that manner. They are comparing the economics of keeping the current systems with the economics of new systems, factoring in other information, and choosing the one that is better for them.

(consider the cartoon scenario where the old system cost $10,000, earns $1 of revenue per flight and can be replaced by a system that costs $1000 and earns $10 per flight...)

I should have said "Depreciate" or "Amortize". Meaning they aren't going to replace a system until it's been there it's entire lifetime. The overall cost per airplane is huge for a new system.

Most airlines make zero or a very tiny profit on the system. It started as a perk to gain share, then ended up as table stakes.

Aside from the initial costs, all that Ku transponder time is crazy expensive. As is the maintenance for the onboard equipment.

Plus I guess one kid streaming videos on his instagram app is crippling the connection for all passengers.

It's whack a mole, but most of them either block or throttle video and other bandwidth heavy traffic.

At one point connexion by boeing was doing some fearsome BGP re-steering to try and get traffic efficient ground station routing. I don't know how they did it (by hand?) or how well it worked, it was anecdata.

I was also told the FAA at one point demanded all aircraft have the same IP and ASN. I suspect thats magnified bullshit but it is an interesting question, what FAA compliance in data services means for certifying a configuration which has to be mutable as you move, as aircraft change lease, as ISPs come and go.

I doubt the FAA got involved with IP addresses and BGP. They do care about airgapping , heat, grounding, electrical, antenna radomes and hull integrity, etc.

Just flew from LA to Boston on JetBlue. Woo free WiFi. Boo everyone is on it, literally unusable.

Then I flew NY to LA on Alaska. Woo WiFi that isn’t free so there’s bandwidth. Boo it’s $40 for the flight.

How’s 20 bucks sound?

The problem with public Wi-Fi (not just on airplanes) is that there's no guarantee about what you're gonna get in terms of bandwidth or if there are any limitations or restrictions.

Most public Wi-Fi for example blocks video websites such as YouTube and Netflix - if the network is paid you only find out after you've paid with no easy way to get a refund.

I get why they're blocking them, but I feel like a better solution would just be to split the bandwidth evenly and give every user a guaranteed bandwidth on which they're allowed to do anything they want (since it won't disrupt other users as they can't use more than their allocated bandwidth).

The bandwidth should be advertised upfront along with the price so any potential customers know what they're getting and whether it'll work for their application (if it's advertising 1Mbps I know I wouldn't be able to watch Netflix in HD, but it'll still be fine for e-mails and casual browsing).

Authentication should also be improved; currently it's all captive portals which are hacks and inefficient for frequent users. If I'm commuting every day and happy to pay for your Wi-Fi just give me my own WPA2 Enterprise credentials (unique username/password) so my devices can connect seamlessly without any further action on my part.

AirFrance gave me the option to get "Stream speed" in a flight from Paris to Sao Paulo a few days ago. By "stream speed" I assume it allows netflix. I didn't test it tough.

I wonder how SpaceX Starlink will disrupt the current players in this market.

lowering RTT significantly would immediately alter the equation between ground facing and sat facing comms.

The lower bandwidth cost is a big deal as well. Though actively tracking and often swinging to new satellites while going 500mph, with the aircraft tilting and yawing is probably not easy.

Starlink receivers will use solid-state phased array beamforming antennae, so nothing has to physically "swing" to a new satellite. With a reasonably accurate accelerometer and inertial sensor, it's easy to compensate for aircraft movement.

I thought even the current GEO orbit antenna were phased array. If not, there might also be the point that the aerodynamics for a phased array shell may be less expensive on fuel burden (less air resistance, less turbulence) and lighter, so cheaper overall. (at a refit cost)

The Connexion antenna was all phased array with no tilt/yaw, but it was huge. The ones on aircraft now do track the satellite, tilt, etc.

Most of the ones I've seen still have moving parts. They're clever mechanisms and are not as deep as a swinging dish, but they're still motorized.

I don't think you'd even need that, the antenna can "simply" seek the strongest signal direction.

Ahh, that's helpful, but the spot size is likely pretty small, so there is probably some work on how to make the transition from spot to spot seamless.

Installing two antennas per aircraft could make the transitions pretty seamless, at the cost of a little extra weight and drag.

That's how it will have to be done in any case. The only question is whether they'll split the phased array transducers in one large array to look at two satellites at once, or have two separate smaller arrays. Both approaches can be made to work, and the first is probably better aerodynamically.

It's not that hard with a phased array. Not trivial of course, and there are lots of subtleties (like handoff) but it's known engineering.

It's nice that airlines are offering this and I'm sure there is a lot of people who benefit from this, but I guess I'm used to be prepared and have all the data I need cached on my system before I leave. And with FileVault/Bitlocker, I'm not too concerned in case of a theft.

Google makes it quite easy these days with File Stream, Gmail offline mode, etc. And for multimedia, I just download / sync content I'm likely to watch beforehand on Netflix or Plex.

I was reading up on this article the other day and was wondering if Li-Fi can be utilized for ATG or Satellite to Plane transmission. Will this increase stability of internet connection on the plane?


I have personally experienced very slow and unstable connection even on the premium WiFi plan of American Airlines, Alaska, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

3. Starlink

Thank you. Was very disappointed to not find that in the discussion.

Looks like it’s already being trialed for military C-12 planes.


Pumped for the day when Roko's basilisk comes this close to taking over the world's financial system, but is thwarted by crappy airplane wifi.

RB's up there excited, all ready to press the big red button after departing JFK in Air Force One, but can't because it forgot to download the mandatory app before take-off.

Foiled again!

The term "basilisk" is referring to the thought experiment itself, not the AI, by the way. A basilisk is something where perceiving it damages you, more or less.

The AI is nameless or might be referred to as Omega.

ah my bad. guess that's why no one liked the joke. gotta be accurate with your Omega jokes on HN or people will shred you.

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