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Transportation Businesses Communications The Internet

Airbus, Delta, and Sprint Are on a Quest for In-Flight Wi-fi That Actually Works (fortune.com) 48

It's 2018, so why is it still seemingly impossible to get a decent wi-fi on an airplane? From a report: Well, a lot of reasons, it turns out. The Wall Street Journal recently enumerated them: hardware, software, government regulation, aviation regulation, and rivalries between wireless and satellite companies. Despite the obstacles, a new alliance between Airbus, Delta Air Lines, Sprint, and two U.S. satellite companies is trying to find a way to provide faster Internet and a better user experience. Japan's SoftBank, which owns 80% of Sprint, and India's Bharti Airtel are also reportedly supporting the project. The group, which calls itself Seamless Air Alliance, envisions a world where a variety of devices could easily connect to the Internet while in flight at industry-leading speeds, rivaling cable and 5G. The businesses that are either involved in or backing the alliance pack a punch: they already serve about 150 million airline passengers and 450 million mobile users around the globe.
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Airbus, Delta, and Sprint Are on a Quest for In-Flight Wi-fi That Actually Works

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  • Probably like $10 for one hour of wifi. At least if they get it to work well with decent speeds it'll be worth it.

    Me, I'll just use Elon's low earth orbit satellites. It should work from inside an airplane, right?

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Might work by the window, unless you're on the Dreamliner. Their 'cool' LCD dimming windows effectively block GHz-signals due to the metal film on the panes. Try using a GPS on a 787. ONly plane I know where it doesn't work (to my annoyance).

    • Me, I'll just use Elon's low earth orbit satellites. It should work from inside an airplane, right?

      The aluminum body of the airplane forms a Faraday cage [wikipedia.org] blocking RF signals from outside. A little signal can leak through the windows, enough to allow cell phones to work if the plane is near a tower. But considerably weaker satellite signals stand no chance. If you've ever brought a GPS aboard a plane, you may have noticed it won't work unless you position it next to the window.

      WiFi aboard planes goes

      • Actually ... The GPS doesn't work for a related but different reason than you'd think. It's not signal strength...

        You need 3 or more satellites in view of your receiver antenna in order to calculate a solution of your position. That's why it needs to be near the window. The body of the aircraft effectively blocks the RF from the GPS satellites, the windows don't. But moving closer to the window doesn't improve the reception, it only puts more of the sky in view which may let you hear more satellites.

        • It's not signal strength...The body of the aircraft effectively blocks the RF from the GPS satellites

          So it's signal strength.

          • Not really... It's having a minimum of satellites in view. If it was a signal strength issue, you could just turn up the transmit power or use antennas with gain. Neither of these solutions would work because you need a *direct* line of sight to the GPS transmitter, anything short of that is going to give you zero signal, regardless of the transmit power or receiving antenna gain.

            It's the same in your car or going though a tunnel, you don't have a direct line of sight to enough satellites to calculate a so

            • If it was a signal strength issue, you could just turn up the transmit power or use antennas with gain.

              You can't turn up the transmit power of your GPS receiver, and having an antenna with gain only works if there is enough signal strength to pick something up in the first place. The aluminum hull of an aircraft does very well at blocking the signal.

              It's the same in your car or going though a tunnel, you don't have a direct line of sight to enough satellites to calculate a solution.

              Not because the satellites aren't there anymore, it's because the signal from those satellites cannot reach the receiver. I.e., a signal strength issue.

              But it doesn't really matter. Doesn't work is doesn't work.

            • by rnturn ( 11092 )
              You might be able to receive a signal from 1-2 satellites through the aircraft window but that won't be enough for the receiver to form a position solution. You need at least three if your receiver clock is synchronized to GPS time or four if it isn't. And if you were lucky enough to "see" four satellites through the window, the position solution wouldn't be very good at all (like you'd care sitting in the window seat). Because of the awful SV configuration the resulting position would be wildy off (really
        • by jrumney ( 197329 )
          It also helps accuracy if the satellites you can see are spread out, which is not the case even quite near to the tiny window of your plane.
    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      Unfortunately, the receiver for that is the size of a pizza box. I mean, I guess you could carry one on a plane, but it's not exactly small.

  • Someday you might be able to get internet satellite service. Would in fright WiFi matter at that point?
    • Yes.... Aluminum and carbon composite tubes are pretty good faraday cages and you will be moving pretty fast compared to the guy sitting at home, so it might be hard to get and keep a reliable connection to a satellite service.

      • Let's ask a manager. They know everything.

        Q. Mr. Manager, how can I overcome the limitations of in fright WiFi imposed by pesky nuisance physics?
        A. I'm glad you asked. The best way to overcome these problems is to have virtualized WiFi. In the clouds. It gives you virtual internet access without having any actual internet access. At our next management meeting we will discuss this and form a committee to study it further.
    • in fright WiFi

      Is that WiFi for people who are afraid of flying?

  • by Ed Tice ( 3732157 ) on Monday February 26, 2018 @02:28PM (#56189273)
    They have a proprietary system. Don't know how it works. But you get it from gate to gate and it's fast enough for WebEx meetings with no audio drop outs. (And before somebody comments, I don't talk on those meetings, only listen. If I have something to add, I use the chat feature)
  • Cable and 5G? I'd take DSL quality speeds if it came with with reasonably low (and consistent!) latency. Say, 250ms to popular sites.
    • both cable and 4G (5G must be even better, isn't it) offer much better than 250 ms latency to web sites hosted on the same continent. Even cross-Atlantic is often less than 100 ms.

      • Yeah, I'm just basing 250ms on what I've gotten before when I used in-flight WiFi. It's not great, but as long as it's consistent w/ no spikes or dropped packets, it's serviceable. Just tethered to my iPhone right now (AT&T LTE) and got 90-120ms to same-continent.
    • one cable node to a plane with 1-5 users willing to pay = good speeds.

  • by ToTheStars ( 4807725 ) on Monday February 26, 2018 @03:51PM (#56189915)
    JetBlue has free in-flight wi-fi right now. Wikipedia says they're served by Exede, a satellite internet company which also powers internet on United and Virgin America. Fast enough to stream NetFlix (at least, they claim so, I've never tried) and definitely fast enough for my recreational browsing. I'm not sure why Delta and Airbus would be late to the game, but I recall reading somewhere that their current in-flight connectivity is via a network of ground-based stations (probably the source of the Sprint connection), so they may be stuck with a different web of contractual agreements and regulatory hurdles than satcom.

    (JetBlue also has free snacks and drinks and decent legroom in coach, which is why they'll always get my business if they're flying where I need to go.)
    • >> Fast enough to stream NetFlix (at least, they claim so, I've never tried)

      I'm thinking SlashDot is not the right site for you.
      • >> Fast enough to stream NetFlix (at least, they claim so, I've never tried)

        I'm thinking SlashDot is not the right site for you.

        MyBad, TooMuch CamelCase OnMyMind. :)

    • by jrumney ( 197329 )
      I'm guessing that's fast enough for one person on the entire flight to stream Netflix. As soon as a second passenger tries it, you're both competing for the same limited bandwidth.
      • by mjwx ( 966435 )

        I'm guessing that's fast enough for one person on the entire flight to stream Netflix. As soon as a second passenger tries it, you're both competing for the same limited bandwidth.

        Bandwidth isn't the issue with satellite... its latency.

        As long as netflix is using UTP for streaming (IIRC, it does) several people should be able to pull down a standard def stream... A full A380 might have some issues though. 25 Mbps is easily achievable with satellite... return pings of less than 400ms not so much.

        • by jrumney ( 197329 )

          25 Mbps is easily achievable with satellite

          So yeah. Enough for one person on the flight to stream an HD movie from Netflix.

          As long as netflix is using UTP for streaming (IIRC, it does)

          I'm not sure how torrent based streaming would help when passengers are watching different movies at different times. But Netflix uses MPEG-DASH over HTTPS anyway.

  • ...but fairly useless for anyone who has ever tried to do any sort of work on a flight using anything but the smallest netbook. It's been years since I last found that there was enough space in an airline seat to even open up a laptop. Time on the plane is better spent sleeping or listening to music---neither of which need wifi.

    • I was just on a Delta flight last week, and used my 15" Dell just fine in "economy" on the outbound trip, and my upgraded "comfort plus" on the way back. Return flight even had a power port, which I thought was nice considering it was an old MD-90 that I expected to still see CRT televisions in...

  • Wouldn't everyone just prefer ethernet for their laptops?

  • At one point, Airbus owned the Norwegian firm called Marlink. They are one of the world's largest satellite communications companies (also a customer of mine). These guys are not "newbs" and they reliably deliver internet connectivity with relatively decent bandwidth to ships and oil rigs around the world. They are certainly capable of delivering in-flight wifi as well.

    As most satellites these types of companies use are generally of the passive types (signal reflection) that means that so long as the ground

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