Here is how WiFi on major airlines works and what it would cost you. Probably. Airplane Wi-Fi pricing is such a mess that you often can't even know what the cost will be until you're on the plane. Gogo is the major provider, and we identified service offerings from Air Canada, Airtran, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, Frontier, Jet Blue, SouthWest Virgin America, United and US Air.
For some, once they get past the TSA checkpoints, an airplane flight becomes an oasis of electronic solitude; a few hours when they can relax and forget about staying connected. For others, it is a time of nervous anxiety, as they begin to miss the immediate connectivity to which they have become accustomed. And then, of course, there is the business traveler, who is looking at the flight as a time to focus on getting some work done and for whom network connectivity is crucial.
How it works
This need for connectivity has been driving the adoption of in-flight Wi-Fi services by major airlines worldwide, though most of the implementation of these services has been by airlines that are U.S. based and operating. At this point in time, services are provided to the airlines by outside vendors so the airline can select which vendor and package of services to offer on their flights. There are two major U.S. vendors of inflight connectivity, Gogo and Row 44. A third entrant, ViaSat, will begin to offer service in 2013. Each vendor offers their own specific type of connectivity for the aircraft with pluses and minuses, and as of the date of this article, Gogo is the dominant player by far.
All of the services function in basically the same way. They provide connectivity to the public Internet via a Wi-Fi hotspot accessible from the cabin of the aircraft. This in-cabin network may also be used to provide in-flight entertainment services ranging from television network feeds to movies and canned TV shows available from an on-board media server connected to the network. In the U.S., the Internet connectivity is available when the aircraft is above 10,000 feet and is turned off during take-offs and landings. Access to the Internet is browser-based and users are directed on their device to connect to a secure web site in order to pay for the service or enter their passcode if they are a subscriber or have prepaid for the service on their flight.
What differs between the providers is the speed and bandwidth of the pipe they can provide to each aircraft. It's important to note that at this point in time using in-flight Wi-Fi is nothing like connecting to a terrestrial wireless access point. The available bandwidth is significantly narrower, and the latency of the network is such that usability is compromised for anything much beyond basic email and Web browsing.
Gogo, the current market leader, provides connectivity to aircraft via a network of 250 dedicated cell towers that it has built nationwide. Fundamentally, it offers the same type of connectivity you would expect to see on a standard 3G capable phone. The connection is limited in speed to just over 3 Mbps and all users on the plane share this one connection.
This means that streaming video and interactive communications such as Skype are not supported. Web browsing and slow file transfers are all that can be realistically expected when using this service. As of late November 2012, Gogo is in the processes of upgrading its network and aircraft equipment to its ATG-4 (Air to Ground) protocol which operates at almost 10 Mbps. Changes in antennas and modems used on each aircraft are required, as well as the changes to its cell towers to support the EV-DO Rev B standard, an upgraded version of EV-DO commonly found in older cellular phone networks.
Aircraft equipped with the second generation Gogo hardware also have a different pricing level, which starts out higher than those aircraft still using the older network. And like the older network, the aircraft are still bandwidth limited; the more people on the plane that are using the service, the slower the overall connection experience is for each user.
Row44 has taken a different approach to providing the in-flight connectivity. The company's only U.S. carrier at this point is Southwest Airlines, which has begun rolling out the service on certain aircraft. This service uses satellite connectivity, so connections are not limited to line-of-sight connections to terrestrial cell towers. Row44 has partnered with HughesNet Satellite Internet to provide this connectivity to their aircraft with a maximum speed of 11 Mbps.
HughesNet is very familiar to many users as it has been providing satellite Internet services for more than 20 years, so the technology is well-established and reliable. It does, however, suffer from the rules of physics. The latency added to every packet is a direct result of the fact that it travels from the aircraft to the satellite, to the ground station, and then out to the Internet. While Row44 doesn't limit the applications or uses of its service, the very nature of the service means that latency-sensitive applications, VOIP and multi-player games, for example, won't work well, if at all. And, as with the Gogo service, the shared bandwidth connection to the aircraft means that the activities of every user affect the overall user experience.
The third service should be making its appearance on the airline JetBlue in Early 2013. This is a new satellite service provided by ViaSat. The primary difference between this service and its competitors is that ViaSat are claiming that it will be able to deliver a 12 Mbps or faster connection to each passenger, rather than a single bandwidth delivery claim on a per-aircraft basis. The service will still have the latency issues inherent in space-based communications, but individual connection speeds promise to be much greater. As the service is not yet available to the public, we have been unable to get any feedback on its actual usability.
So, how much does it cost? For that, there is no easy answer. The tables below outline some basic price information, and there are pre-purchase options available from Gogo that are usable across any airline that provides service using Gogo's infrastructure, but the actual price that you will need to pay may not be something you can find out until you are actually aboard the aircraft. Yes, there is no pricing on these services that you can get in advance and on which you can rely, and the posted pricing changed more than once while we wrote this story.
Airlines have been diversifying the basic Gogo offerings by breaking purchases up into smaller packets, allowing the customer to buy services on as little as a per-minute basis. This can make service for an entire flight extremely expensive if you need to do more than a quick email check. Meanwhile, a similar flight on the same airline may allow the use of the Gogo flat-rate plan purchased on a per-day basis. And there are many pricing options in between those two, based, in part, on how much use the airline is seeing of the in-flight connectivity on that particular service segment.
Your best option, before planning on using Wi-Fi on your next flight, may be to check the web site of the airline you'll be using. Some of the airlines will allow you to drill down to the equipment that will be used on a specific flight and you will be able to determine, with a strong possibility of being correct, what service and the prices will be available on your flight. Other airlines provide more generic information, and you will not be able to confirm prices until you're at the gate or on the aircraft. If your business travel plans require you to have connectivity, regardless of cost, then you will need to either check that your specific flights will be Wi-Fi enabled or fly only on airlines that have equipped their entire fleet.
Or, to guarantee yourself a price, buy through Gogo. It may not be the best price, but Gogo assures us that their pre-purchased passes will work.
Unless your plane that day isn't Wi-Fi-equipped. One day this may all be simple, but we have a way to go until then.
All pricing is per-device, not per-user. All prices may vary depending on flight.
American (American also offers segment based and mobile device pricing: Laptop 15 minute plan $1.95 - Entire segment $4.95-$17.95 based on market and mileage. Mobile phone, tablet: $1.96 for 15 minutes, $4.95-$9.95 per segment )