Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure | Guest Blog: Netflix and Fly? A Brief Look at In-Flight Wi-Fi - Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure
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Guest Blog: Netflix and Fly? A Brief Look at In-Flight Wi-Fi

31 Mar 2016, Posted in All Posts, Analysis, Blog Posts

By Chanil De Silva, Director of Policy at Nouveau Inc.

Innovation can be a wonderful thing, especially when it allows you to continue watching your favorite Netflix series while soaring 30,000 feet above the ground. In-flight Wi-Fi initially limited to certain domestic flights is available almost universally, on both domestic and international flights and has been around for nearly 10 years. This technology has vastly improved the air transportation experience making it possible for people to seamlessly interact with colleagues, friends or family in real time, while jet setting around the globe. After gaining popularity among U.S. airlines, interest in Wi-Fi services has now spread to overseas carriers such as Air New Zealand and Qantas.

There are two primary ways to provide Internet services onboard an aircraft. The more primitive technology disseminates signals from towers on the ground, while a more modern approach uses satellite-based technology sending a stronger and better signal. Each of these technologies was a breakthrough when first introduced, but as with all innovation, technology must constantly improve to keep up with growing needs. Also as with every new technology, issues begin to emerge once the honeymoon phase wears out.

Some of these issues came to light in recent disputes surrounding in-flight Wi-Fi.

First, the world’s largest carrier, American Airlines, sued America’s largest and most popular in-flight Wi-Fi provider, Gogo Internet, claiming Gogo, which incidentally uses ground-based towers, breached its contract by not providing fast Internet and reliable services to its customers. Gogo’s connection speed is currently offered at a low 3.5 Mbps (megabits per second) and costs up to $30 per flight. Other competitors have started offering reliable, high-speed (10 – 15 Mbps) satellite Wi-Fi at lower rates.

In response to the negative feedback, Gogo recently announced the company is switching to 2Ku satellite Wi-Fi technology in a bid to fix its reputation. The new technology is predicted to provide speeds of up to 15 Mbps and higher and has been tested by streaming multiple programs on almost 40 devices consecutively. Interestingly enough, North America currently boasts the highest average broadband speed of 12 Mbps, which means in-flight Wi-Fi might be better than the average Internet connection in the world. American Airlines has since dropped the lawsuit and it appears the companies have reached an agreement on moving forward.

Another issue involves a USA Today columnist, who claims his e-mail was hacked by a fellow passenger while using Gogo’s in-flight service last month. According to John Kuhn, a senior threat researcher at IBM, a hacker could easily access a passenger’s data flow with cheap and readily available tools. A vice president of the cyber security firm Optiv explains, the only reason why in-flight Wi-Fi is any safer than a Starbucks connection is because the connection is “limited to the population of the plane in which you’re flying.”

As in-flight Wi-Fi grows in popularity across the world and the amount of airline passengers is projected to reach 7.3 billion by 2034, it is prudent that service providers and airlines work together to provide customers with fast, reliable, and most importantly secure Internet connections to enhance the travel experience. While this is indeed a luxury that airlines bestow upon their customers, it must be kept in mind that customers pay for these services and therefore airlines and service providers have an obligation to ensure that in-flight internet is held to the highest standards of data security and information safety.

Incidentally, Netflix recommends 3 Mbps for standard definition movie streaming and 5 Mbps for high definition streaming. Perhaps the new wave of high-speed, secure in-flight Wi-Fi will soon give avid movie buffs a brand new viewing experience, enabling them to binge watch House of Cards in Ultra HD while flying from LA to D.C.