In-flight Internet connections pick up speed

September 16, 2013, 12:31 PM UTC

Among the more surprising findings tucked within a recent Honeywell Aerospace survey of airline passengers were the various amenities that many airline travelers would forgo–reclining seats, extra legroom, and even bathroom privileges–in exchange for faster, more stable in-flight Wi-Fi. It turns out they won’t have to give up anything at all, as several airlines are already working quickly to boost onboard connections speeds by up to six times the current best option.

Last week Virgin America Inc. and inflight Wi-Fi provider Gogo Inc. (GOGO) announced that the airline will integrate Gogo’s new hybrid inflight Wi-Fi system into its fleet, boosting onboard connection rates enough to allow passengers to stream mobile media, among other things. But Virgin is by no means the only airline actively working to give passengers the kind of connectivity they crave.

JetBlue Airways (JBLU) recently received government go-ahead to install a new satellite-based high-speed connection on its 180 aircraft. And earlier this year American Airlines (AMR)–the first major airline to integrate Gogo’s Wi-Fi into commercial flights–announced amid a massive bankruptcy reorganization and fleet overhaul that all of its new Airbus A319 aircraft will be delivered with Gogo’s latest ground-based Wi-Fi installed, while all subsequent new aircraft (American has both Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s on order) will have the new hybrid system installed.

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In other words, the era of disconnected air travel is rapidly coming to a close as nearly every major airline scrambles to provide at least baseline connectivity to its passengers. For the 61 percent of business travelers who–according to a new survey from American Express Global Business Travel–enjoy the opportunity to disconnect during flights, that may not sound like such a good thing. But for the nearly nine-in-10 Americans that would forgo other amenities in exchange for better in-flight Wi-Fi, airliners are about to become much more media-rich environments.

JetBlue’s enhanced Wi-Fi comes courtesy of ViaSat Inc.’s (VSAT) high-capacity Ka-band spectrum satellites, which should be able to provide speeds of 12 megabits per second to each flier’s individual device. Gogo’s new hybrid system works a bit differently, relying on both its upgraded ATG-4 ground-based communications infrastructure and a different constellation of Ku-band spectrum satellites that should be able to provide 60 megabits per second to each aircraft (compared with just 10 megabits per second for its latest ground-based system alone).

Both systems are a reflection of what passengers say they want out of their onboard Wi-Fi–the ability to stream media while airborne. The average connection on the ground in the U.S. is roughly 8.6 megabits per second, putting JetBlue’s Ka-band technology well above the threshold necessary for streaming media from services like Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu–a capability that participants in the Honeywell survey very clearly want.

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Gogo’s systems is also geared toward passenger streaming and other high-bandwidth activities. The installed satellite hardware will be receive-only, meaning passengers will still be sending data at the same slower rate provided by the ground-based system. The higher-bandwidth satellite hardware will be dedicated to pumping data onto each aircraft (good for media streamers, bad for online gamers).

The transition to high-speed in-flight Wi-Fi won’t be immediate. JetBlue plans to have its entire fleet of 180 aircraft equipped by 2015, but Virgin hasn’t said when its entire fleet will be upgraded. American’s upgrade will take some time as it waits for aircraft to be delivered. However, almost every large commercial airline has taken steps to provide at least some degree of connectivity aboard its flights.

A Wall Street Journal survey of 12 major airlines found that roughly 60 percent of commercial passenger airliners in the U.S. are now Wi-Fi connected, compared with just 35 percent two years ago. That number is expected to increase by another 15 percent by the end of 2015, no doubt a comfort to the 90 percent of American passengers that believe Wi-Fi should at the very least be available during every flight.