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Why Don’t Planes Have Free Wi-Fi Yet?


“Some aircraft can come factory-installed with connectivity so it can enter service ready to go with connectivity,” says a spokesperson for Viasat, the satellite internet company offered on most major American airlines. “Another option for the airline is taking an aircraft out of service for a few days for installation of the in-flight connectivity hardware/system.”

To provide Wi-Fi, planes need to have a satellite antenna, a network modem, and a number of wireless access points around the interior, says Jeff Sare, vice president of in-flight connectivity solutions at Panasonic Avionics Corporation. And all that hardware has to be maintained in addition to installed.

How the internet works remains a mysterious concept even (or especially) to customers who grew up using it, but Sare can break it down: “Though it requires a great deal of technology and engineering to make it all work properly, at its most basic, if you can imagine the airplane as a giant, fast-moving mobile hotspot you have the general idea,” he says. “Inside the plane, your laptop or tablet connects to the wireless access point—or hotspot—via Wi-Fi, which in turn uses the modem and antenna on the top of the plane to send and receive radio signals to and from a satellite.”

Aside from the considerable effort to earmark all that time and money, airlines are under pressure to get that uninterrupted, high-speed connection exactly right across the fleet, lest they annoy customers with high expectations. If anything, forcing people to pay for Wi-Fi can function as a disincentive for most of the plane that allows the paying customers to get better connectivity. In many planes, “the more people who are trying to share bandwidth, the less there is for each person,” says Leff. “When there's not a lot of bandwidth is when they charge a lot because [they’re] trying to ration it. It's sort of ironic that the worse the service is, the more they charge, but it also makes sense.”

Still, that fitting and retrofitting is underway, so as travelers return in greater numbers to the friendly skies in 2022—possibly—they may finally find their Wi-Fi is free. Of course, with that industry switch comes the end of unplugging from work email for a few hours, so now might be the last time to savor the quiet.

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