The problem with in-flight Wi-Fi

February 13, 2015

Internet connectivity has become so ubiquitous that a spotty signal is enough to make some users downright grouchy.

Last month, in a New York Times article titled “The Sorry State of In-Flight Wi-Fi,” Nick Bilton wrote, “I’ve finally found something on commercial flights that’s worse than airplane food: the Wi-Fi. It’s so slow and unreliable that it shouldn’t be allowed to call itself ‘Wi-Fi.’ Renaming it Airplane Dial-Up would be unfair to dial-up.”

As this Reuters graphic shows, according to data from RouteHappy.com, passengers on U.S. carriers have a two in three chance of getting some level of Wi-Fi service, but the rest of the world doesn’t fare as well, with fewer than one sixth of non-U.S. flights enjoying any connectivity. While the reach and level of service are expanding, just one percent of flights have top-flight service capable of streaming a movie. Many carriers are moving to satellite-based services, which at 70 Megabits per second (Mbps) represent a significant improvement over the 3-10 Mbps that ground-based cellular tower services offer. In-flight bandwidths are shared by all passengers who purchase Wi-Fi service, so given that dilution of signal, the increase seems like a necessity.

The rub lies in the fact that while many flyers want fast, reliable Internet service, the majority of people don’t want to pay for it; just 6.7 percent of passengers purchase plans when they are available. Pricing schemes can be an issue, too, as evidenced by the Toronto man who napped through the majority of a $1200 Wi-Fi bill that he tallied on a flight from London to Singapore. Some airlines have taken to using free Wi-Fi access as a marketing advantage, but given the history of in-flight Wi-Fi’s questionable service, there is a long way to go for the offer to serve as a differentiator.

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