How did they get Wi-Fi in that airplane?

April 3, 2017 Christine Wong

The details behind Internet access in the skies.

wi-fi on airplane

Which would you rather do without during a plane ride: food or the Internet?

More than half of us would probably skip the food. When Inmarsat surveyed 9,000 airline passengers in 27 countries last year, 54 per cent said that if forced to choose, they would forego meal service to keep surfing the Web during their flight. In the same poll, 83 per cent said they already choose airlines based on in-flight Internet availability.

While our craving for connectivity continues to climb – even at 20,000 feet in the air – most of us don’t really know how it works. That’s why we’re here to separate fact from fiction when it comes to sky-high Wi-Fi. Buckle up and stow away your tray table so we can get started.

How does airplane Wi-Fi work?

The two main types of aircraft Wi-Fi are satellite and air-to-ground (ATG). Gogo Inc., which has captured about 80 per cent of the world’s airline Wi-Fi market, launched its ATG Wi-Fi aboard a Boeing 767 in 2008. Fuelled by swift sales of consumer smartphones, Gogo rolled out its service on 2,000 aircraft by 2013.

To make ATG work, you need cellular towers on the ground, one or more antennae affixed to the plane’s surface, and a modem inside the aircraft.

wi-fi on airplane

ATG works well for flights within Canada and the U.S. where there’s a high density of cellular towers dotted across both countries. But on flight paths above countries with sparse cellular tower networks, ATG is less reliable. That’s why Gogo mainly uses ATG for flights within continental North America, while on many international routes they provide the service using satellite Wi-Fi. 

Only a few years after introducing ATG, the company debuted its 2Ku satellite Wi-Fi. Now, the latest satellite Wi-Fi for planes uses a special antenna, called a “radome” antenna, fixed to the exterior of the aircraft. This replaces the old gimbaled antenna, which had to constantly reposition itself to point directly (and accurately) towards the correct satellite. That’s no easy feat when a plane is hurtling through the air at 35,000 feet.

The radome antenna creates a beam that is directed towards the satellite, with no need to reposition any of its parts. Resembling a large, round pushbutton, a radome is also much smaller than a gimbaled antenna, producing less drag in the air and therefore reducing fuel consumption.

Gogo isn’t the only airborne Wi-Fi game in town, though. Competitor ViaSat Inc. has already installed its satellite-based Wi-Fi in more than 500 aircraft in just a few short years, winning contracts with carriers including JetBlue, United, Virgin, Qantas, and American.

Is airplane Wi-Fi available in Canada?

You bet, at least for the major air carriers.

Air Canada has been offering ATG Wi-Fi on certain North American routes since 2014 and announced plans to introduce 2Ku connectivity on international flights last fall. WestJet also launched its own WestJet Connect service in 2015.

Smaller airlines and regional carriers are a different story. Currently, Porter, Sunwing and Transat do not offer any in-flight Internet, but the trend and demand could change that in the near future.

Is airplane Wi-Fi secure?

Not totally. As journalist Steven Petrow recounted in USA Today last year, Wi-Fi on a plane is just as susceptible to breaches as any public Wi-Fi network on the ground.

At the end of a flight in February 2016, Petrow was tapped on the shoulder by a fellow passenger who revealed he’d used the plane’s Wi-Fi to hack into Petrow’s email via the plane’s Gogo Wi-Fi. Fortunately, the guy was a ‘white hat’ hacker who only did it to scare Petrow into using airline Wi-Fi more carefully (for example, using a virtual private network, encryption and strong unique passwords). How generous, yet creepy, of him.

Is airplane Wi-Fi safe?

The risks of using any electronic or connected devices during air travel have been debated for decades. Air Canada’s website says its passengers can use Wi-Fi “above 10,000 feet.” WestJet’s site says Wi-Fi can be used when the plane reaches “cruising altitude.”

What gives? It all stems from a U.S. ban on cell phone use during flights. The rule was enacted years ago after reports of cell phone signals interfering with aircraft GPS or with pilot-to-ground control communications. The ban was also put in place to make sure ground level cellular towers aren’t overwhelmed by thousands of phone signals pinging off them from thousands of feet in the air.

In 2013 the U.S. ended a ban on using electronic devices during takeoff and landing but held firm on banning cell phone calls and texting at all times during flights. Canada revised its rules in 2014: no talking or texting on cell phones for the duration of the flight, but electronic devices can now be used during takeoff and landing as long as they’re not connected to the web.

Is airplane Wi-Fi any good?

The speed, strength and reliability of in-flight Wi-Fi can vary depending on the airline, route and aircraft model. Thanks to Routehappy, however, you can check the availability, quality and cost of Wi-Fi on a particular flight. Look for Routehappy’s Wi-Fi ratings when you search for individual flights on partner sites like Expedia or Sabre – before you buy your ticket.

Get Ready for The Technology Expo 2017

Epic Tech Expo

We're getting ready for “The Technology Expo” hosted by Epic, an MTS Company, on April 26, 2017. This annual event is Manitoba’s premier information technology conference, hosted at the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg and featuring keynote sessions, demo theatres, networking activities and a tradeshow floor showcasing the latest tech impacting the IT landscape. Stay tuned to the Business Hub for full coverage, expert advice from speakers and photos from the day.

In the meantime, see highlights from the 2016 Technology Expo, featuring hot topics like cybersecurity, device management and…bacon.

Security Threats Are Hottest Topic at Tech Day

About the Author

Christine Wong

Christine Wong is a journalist based in Toronto who has covered a wide range of startups and technology issues. A former staff writer with ITBusiness.ca, she has also worked as a reporter for the Canadian Economic Press and in broadcast roles at SliceTV and the CBC.

Follow on Twitter More Content by Christine Wong
Previous Article
What's stopping you from being the Ultimate Entrepreneur?
What's stopping you from being the Ultimate Entrepreneur?

These common myths about entrepreneurship might be holding you back.

Next Article
Future Tech: Robot cops, solar water taxis & computer gamers
Future Tech: Robot cops, solar water taxis & computer gamers

Fascinating developments in the world of technology and innovation...

Top 11 Business Hub articles

See the list