Overseas in-flight WiFi still a rarity

Posted: July 15, 2012

Technology couldn't be more pervasive. It is always at our fingertips, meeting every need at every moment, providing constant communication. Right?

Judging by how quickly people fire up their phones after the plane lands, not quite.

One of the last significant hurdles for wireless communication is the airplane. Though WiFi is increasingly available on domestic flights, it remains expensive and relatively little-used, according to most analyses. On international flights, where it can be argued that it is most needed, WiFi remains a rarity.

Australian airline Qantas inched the world closer to international in-flight WiFi in March by launching an eight-week trial with the service on flights between Australia and Los Angeles, allowing passengers in first and business classes to access the Internet on laptops, phones, and tablets. Qantas joins airlines that include Lufthansa, and, later this year, United.

This is revolutionary in 2012? For airplanes crossing oceans, yes.

Michael Planey, an airline industry consultant who tracks in-flight technologies, said there were several reasons for the slow move to WiFi on international flights. Most of it, predictably, comes down to money.

Most WiFi signals on domestic flights are provided by a series of ground towers. Qantas' experiment, like all flights over water, uses satellite connections. The satellite connections are far more expensive propositions for airlines. That cost is increased by what appears to be moderate user interest at current pricing levels.

"Airlines have not been able to find a business model they like that doesn't cost them money to provide the service," Planey said. "And people are making do without it."

Planey isn't sure in-flight WiFi has demonstrated itself as a product worth buying. Sure, there's enough bandwidth to send e-mails and texts and tweak the Facebook and Twitter accounts. But when it comes to streaming video or downloading music — the things we now take for granted while waiting for the bus — the execution isn't always as clean at 38,000 feet.

His idea: Airlines should invest in the infrastructure, use the WiFi for their own purposes, then give a small amount free to passengers, whose expectations will drop — because it's free — to the point that not being able to stream YouTube videos will barely matter. They'll just be glad to update their Facebook status.

"Once people start paying for it," he said, "they expect a premium service."

One day WiFi on airplanes will have seemed inevitable. Consider that Aircell, the company behind Gogo, the WiFi service for most domestic flights, recently announced that it is working on a satellite system that will enable international service by 2015.

"Honestly, I thought going into 2012 we'd have a more settled business model," Planey said.

Qantas' small step shows how far we have to go.

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