Wi-Fi on the plane

Wi-Fi on the plane: staying online – even above the clouds!

Martina Roters
28.09.2020
5 minutes

Wi-Fi on the plane is still not a matter of course: Younger guests in particular expect to be able to be online at all times, even during a flight: emailing, posting on social media, surfing the internet, shopping or watching videos. But there are still a few hurdles to overcome first…

Airplane mode – what is that actually?

Originally, the WorldWideWeb was a network that traversed the earth’s surface with cables: from one server to the next and from there to the end computers.

Later, the internet became wireless – via mobile radio. But that was exactly the critical factor – there was a danger that cell phone waves would interfere with the sensitive onboard electronics of the airplanes. Critics conjured up dangers up to and including possible crashes, and so at the beginning there was a strict ban on cell phones in the aircraft.

Now, as cell phones began to have more and more functions beyond making phone calls, the devices were equipped with an aircraft mode (also called offline mode). This switches off all radio connections at the push of a button – mobile phone networks such as GSM, UMTS, LTE, but also other radio units such as Bluetooth, NFC and Wi-Fi.

In the meantime, even the German Aerospace Center (DLR) says that cell phone radiation no longer poses a danger for modern aircraft. Nevertheless, one is well advised to use the aircraft mode anyway:

Cell phone off in the airplane – pro arguments

Internet on the plane: alternative A: supply from the ground

In the USA it has been standard for many years, but in Europe it is not yet so widespread: A network of high-tech ground antennas sends signals to the on-board server. If Elon Musk has his way, the principle is now simply transferred into space. He has nothing else in mind with his Starlink project:

Wi-Fi on the plane: alternative B: supply via satellite

Space is slowly filling up with satellites, especially communication satellites. If airlines today are meeting more and more customer demands and offering on-board Wi-Fi during the entire flight, it is because modern aircraft can receive signals via satellite antennas.

Just pay attention when you see a long-haul aircraft from above at the airport. Under this curved oval cover, two satellite antennas are usually hidden, like giant peepers for outer space. The on-board server then distributes the incoming signals to the Wi-Fi access points, where passengers can connect their cell phones, tablets or laptops.

Hold on! Didn’t we say earlier that the aircraft mode switches off the Wi-Fi?
That’s right, but the Wi-Fi may be switched on again after reaching cruising altitude – and so may the Bluetooth, by the way.

Until now, this option has only been offered on longer routes, but in the competition for customer satisfaction more and more airlines are offering internet access for short and medium-haul flights.

Above the cloud cover, reception is usually good because no water particles impair the signal reception. However, there is still one drawback: just like on the ground, the signal strength depends on how many people are currently in the Wi-Fi network. The connection can also be interrupted for a few seconds if the satellite is being changed.

Wi-Fi on the plane

And the costs? Welcome to the tariff jungle!

Some airlines do not offer Wi-Fi on board, many only provide on-board internet on long-haul flights.

For Business Class, there is often a certain amount of Wi-Fi included (time or volume). With some airlines, even economy passengers get some “internet goodies” for free (probably a clever move: if you have started, you might buy more).

One hour of Wi-Fi costs between 5-10 EUR, and sometimes a distinction is made according to data usage. Of course streaming movies is much more expensive than checking your e-mail.

Wi-Fi volume packages are often less transparent than time packages, because you can easily keep track of the time, but can you always be sure that your smartphone is not making unwanted downloads?

Also the runtime can be important: Is the tariff valid from the first login or during the whole flight?

Tip: With some tariffs (currently starting with Magenta Mobil M), Deutsche Telekom customers can book a free Wi-Fi option on the plane before the flight (Inflight Europe Flat). Applies to short- and medium-haul flights operated by Lufthansa, Eurowings and Austrian Airlines. The speed is sufficient for social media and e-mail check (600 kbit/sec).

So it’s best to inquire about the exact conditions for the in-flight Wi-Fi when booking. This page gives you an overview.

On-board internet of the future? Li-Fi instead of Wi-Fi – when will the internet of light come on board?

A future technology has already left the runway and taken off: At the end of 2019, Air France tested optical Wi-Fi, i.e. data transmission using light waves, on flight AF6114. On board were ten Internet gamers who played the final round of the “Track mania” racing tournament above the clouds – with the help of the new internet of light.

This video shows that this technology, which is characterized by security and speed, is on its way to practical application (French with English subtitles)

by Martina Roters

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