Why In-Flight Wi-Fi is a Sore Spot for Passengers

As event professionals, there are days, weeks and months when we are in the air more than we’re on the ground. This used to mean a constant disconnect from the world—36,000 ft. above the ground, you were unable to access texting, calls, emails and social media. This was beyond frustrating, and many demanded that something be done to solve this.

Thankfully, airlines listened. Now, in-flight internet access is available on almost every flight. And some airlines, including JetBlue and Emirates, have begun offering this service for free. For others, it can cost the big bucks to access the outside world. And it would be worth it—if the Wi-Fi wasn’t so slow.

How it Works

Gogo Inc. is the company behind most in-flight Wi-Fi you’ll find on your plane. Gogo uses air-to-ground (ATG) technology; basically, an antenna on the bottom of the plane passes over approximately 200 towers in North America, then transforms this signal into a Wi-Fi network. Shared among tens to hundreds of passengers, the three megabits-per-second received is simply not enough for fast internet. In comparison: most homes have a download speed of 20 to 160 megabits per second, shared among only a few people.

So, why doesn’t Gogo upgrade?

While they have been working to develop newer and faster technology, such as ATG4 and —which reaches approximately nine megabits on 500 planes—and high-speed satellite Wi-Fi, called Gogo FLEX 2Ku, Gogo isn’t necessarily in a rush to fix this problem. “They have paid for the installation and management and they get a significant percentage of the revenue,” says tech consultant Corbin Ball, CSP, CMP and DES. “There are contractual relationships with the airlines based on a specific set of time—often 10-year contracts.”

And passengers desperate for their connection to the ground—which extends to most businesspersons—will willingly pay a large sum for a shoddy connection that allows them to slowly download and respond to emails.

Row 44 and ViaSat

Some airlines offer other, lesser-known host companies. Southwest’s Row 44 offers one to five megabits, and JetBlue’s ViaSat reaches up to 12 megabits. However, these hosts have their downsides.

Southwest’s Row 44 uses geostationary satellites, which in turn sends a signal through the Ku frequency band (read: a frequency that allows for satellite communication and broadcasting, like that of a satellite televisions) to a more complex antenna on top of the plane. ViaSat differs slightly, as the satellites broadcast on a newer, larger frequency—thus enabling faster speeds. These satellite-based services require sending a signal tens of thousands of miles above, then receiving that same signal back in the form of Wi-Fi, which can cause a delay. Because of this, ATG “at times can be faster due to shorter transmission distances,” says Ball. However, “satellites are available globally, [and] generally faster than land-based systems.”

Though satellite-based services may seem like the way to go due to faster download speeds, it’s unlikely they’ll take over every aircraft, says Ball. Those Gogo contracts most airlines have signed and the cost of these antennas have caused a stall in development.

How to Speed Up Your Connection

That doesn’t mean passengers will be stuck with the spinning wheel forever. Ball says there hope for the future. “You may not likely see many price reductions in the near future,” he warns. But the cost could be worth it if the Wi-Fi is upgraded to a close-to-standard speed.

On top of these upcoming developments, there are steps you can take to speed up your internet connection. No, it won’t match what you can achieve at home, but it will keep you from wanting to throw your phone out the window. Ball recommends the following to speed up your connection:

1. Turn off photo back-up. Photos will take extra bandwidth to back-up, slowing down your connection with each photo.

2. Turn off auto-app updates. Certain apps will begin updating the second you connect to Wi-Fi. Disable this feature and update all apps before boarding.

3. Keep the tabs closed. Many are guilty of having multiple tabs open, especially when multi-tasking. Close tabs whenever you stop needing them.

4. Shut down apps that use the internet. This includes weather apps and location-tracking services.

Editor’s Note: Meredith Payette of Gogo Inc. responded after the article was originally published with updates about the service. “Most of our commercial U.S. airline customers are moving away from air-to-ground and upgrading to our high-speed satellite Wi-Fi, called Gogo FLEX 2Ku… This Wi-Fi allows people to choose the experience they want, browse or stream… Pricing also comes down as passengers can chose [if] they want to browse or stream, but ultimately it’s the airlines that select the pricing of their Wi-Fi.”