You’re on a transatlantic flight. While you’re in the air, you need to get some work done or you just want to check in on Facebook and send a few emails to some friends. But when you try to log on, you find that the airline’s Wi-Fi service isn’t free. You’re not willing to pay up to $20 for a possibly slow and unreliable connection. So instead of using your tablet or laptop to its full potential, you’re left with limited offline options for entertainment and productivity — making your five-hour flight seem even longer than it actually is.
But thanks to a new Federal Communications Commission decision, the airline Wi-Fi fees may soon become a worthwhile expenditure. In early May 2013, the FCC expanded the availability of in-flight Wi-Fi, a decision that will not only make the service more reliable and user-friendly, but in most cases, free to passengers.So on that long transatlantic flight, you could book a hotel on Venere or make some other travel reservation.
The Technical Specs
Currently, fewer than 10 percent of all airline passengers opt to decide to pay for in-flight Wi-Fi, largely because of the issues with speed. Most airplane services use threeMHz of bandwidth for 3G service onboard. That service is split among all passengers who are logged on. The result is often a bogged-down network that makes it difficult to browse the Internet and all but impossible to stream music or videos. Because so few passengers purchase in-flight Wi-Fi services — and some even skirt the federal rules regarding electronic devices and use their own device modems to access stronger wireless networks not controlled by the airline — improvements to onboard service have been slow to take shape and limited in scope. This has led to continued dissatisfaction among users. By some accounts, the majority of people using in-flight Wi-Fi are business travelers who absolutely must stay connected and/or are reimbursed for the charges.
The FCC’s solution is to open up 500 MHz of ground-to-air bandwidth in the 14.0-14.5 GHz range for exclusive use by in-flight Wi-Fi service. Freeing up that bandwidth, which is currently used on a limited basis by satellites, would allow airlines to increase both the variety and the quality of services they offer to passengers. To improve efficiency and ensure consistency, the FCC plans to auction the bandwidth off to one or two companies to install and manage the service in each plane. Of course, this ground-to-air service will only be available on domestic flights in the contiguous 48 states as international service will continue to be provided by satellites.
Beyond Customer Satisfaction
While one of the driving factors behind the FCC’s decision to improve in-flight connectivity is customer satisfaction and a desire to help customers stay connected while in the air, that is only part of the equation. Given that installing and providing the service is bound to come with a price tag well into the millions of dollars, airlines will most likely use the expanded broadband service as a means to sell additional products and services to customers while they are on the go.
For example, on the aforementioned flight across the Atlantic, as you use the service you might have to view several advertisements for related products or services. You might see pop-up ads for suggested restaurants or activities in Berlin, or even advertisements for products and services that are available on the plane, such as snacks and drinks. The revenue gained from those offers will offset the costs incurred to install the superior Wi-Fi service
While the FCC has approved the use of the bandwidth for in-flight Wi-Fi, some in the satellite communications industry are expressing concern that taking the bandwidth away from satellite transmissions will cause disruptions in satellite services and incur additional costs. Others are expressing concern over the perceived commercialization of in-flight connectivity, and the notion that airlines will use a captive audience to increase revenues by encouraging passengers to purchase things they neither want nor need. But as anyone who has ever tried to catch up on their favorite drama via a streaming service while flying across the country will attest, the improvement of in-flight wireless services is a welcome and necessary change.
About the Author: Louise Vinciguerra is a fantastic joke teller, has a million and one hobbies, and enjoys matching her fonts with her moods. This Brooklyn native dirties her hands in content on weekdays and as a devout nature lover, dirties them in soil on the weekends. When she’s not on Facebook, WordPress or Twitter, she’s traveling in search of fun food, dabbling in urban farming or planning nature trips from her resident city of Rome. When she’s not doing any of the above, she sleeps.