The internet on airplanes

This isn\’t right is it?

Some US airlines allow passengers to use the internet on board, but most UK airlines ban it for insurance reasons, despite research suggesting that it is safe to use the web in transit.

It\’s a technical issue surely? The plane has to have the right equipment on board to actually carry a signal? A bit like, but more complex than, sticking a router on the thing with a satellite uplink?

10 thoughts on “The internet on airplanes”

  1. Technical issues have been resolved. It’s available on multiple carriers through (probably among others) a company called Gogo. Service is OK, still on limited flights, but definitely here. Regulations are the issue — similar to the ones against electronic device use on takeoff and landing. Call it an abundance of caution or bureaucratic inertia. The interference issues cited have been pretty much proven to be bollocks.

  2. Richard

    12,000 ft is well below the cruising height of even domestic flights. Fine if you are in a small private aircraft, I suppose.

  3. There are different ways of doing it. Gogo has a system of towers on the ground in the United States, which communicate with aircraft in the sky. Basically it is a 3G cellular network that has been built specifically to communicate with the higher altitudes that aircraft fly at. The downside is that it will not work anywhere where there is not a suitable network on the ground, such as over Europe or over the oceans. (Spectrum is generally allocated on a national rather than Europe-wide basis, so there are probably regulatory obstacles).

    There was a satellite system called Connexion that was developed by Boeing a few years back. It worked – I used it on a flight from Singapore to London once – but it went bust after losing a lot of money.

  4. It’s difficult to see what the problem is. Once the airliner’s taken off there’s usually lots of people firing up laptops, kids playing games on phones. Whatever the requirements, it’s doubtful many of them disable the wifi or run the phone in airtravel mode. Few of them would know how to do so if you asked them.
    As Richard points out, 3G is obtainable up to 12,000 ft. As the aircraft climbs out & descends it’s immersed in all sorts of high powered, ground based RF radiation. Just passing over a traffic jam on the M4 is going to put it a few hundred feet from thousands of mobile phones & their relay towers. There must be relay masts at the terminals or you couldn’t use mobiles there. OK, inverse square & all that but it’s hard to see how all that has no effect, yet a few phones & laptops on the aircraft do.

  5. “12,000 ft is well below the cruising height of even domestic flights. Fine if you are in a small private aircraft, I suppose.”

    The other issue, in relation to 3G and cell-towers is the speed you’re going at; it takes a finite amount of time to associate with a cell, and if you’re going too fast you’ll get little – if any – available time to use that tower before you find yourself switching to the next one.

  6. I was an RF engineer for about 8 years.

    A few things:

    1 – As PJH said, the switching time between base stations will be a problem.

    2- The propagation pattern of the masts tends to be directed or horizontal-disc shaped. They dont’ like to waste money sending power into the side of a hill so the antennas tend to have their radiation pattern steered but they won’t radiate into the air much beyond about 20-30 degs to the horizontal and normally much less. You get beams that shoot out above this but they’re called sidelobes and are less powerful. GPS at 1.5GHz is approximately 20’000km away (3G is 2.1GHz) so you can certainly transmit over distances much greater than the height of an aircraft.

    3 – I traveled on two domestic flights in the USA in June and they both had the GoGo service on board. I seem to remeber nearly all the domestic flight offered it.

    4 – If I was looking at the design I’d take a look at beam steering the antennas to the known locations of 3G masts. You know where the masts are and you know where the aircraft is so just point your antennae at it.

    Incidentally, 4G phones had really started to take off in Georgia. Lots of services for 4G were offered.

    Over and out.

  7. It is as Tim says: the plane has to be equipped to communicate with ground based stations (Gogo) or satellites (OnAir), and broadcast a wifi signal to passenger devices.

    There are no safety considerations. Airlines forbid the use of electronic devices during takeoff and landing as a precaution against possible interference with emergency radio communications.

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