Technology

Faster WiFi on flights leads to battle in the sky

People using their smart devices on an American Airlines plane, which is equipped with Gogo Inflight Internet service, en route from Miami to New York. WiFi in the sky is taking off, promising much better connections for travellers and a bonanza for the companies that sell the systems. – Reuters pic, April 14, 2014.People using their smart devices on an American Airlines plane, which is equipped with Gogo Inflight Internet service, en route from Miami to New York. WiFi in the sky is taking off, promising much better connections for travellers and a bonanza for the companies that sell the systems. – Reuters pic, April 14, 2014.WiFi in the sky is taking off, promising much better connections for travellers and a bonanza for the companies that sell the systems.

With satellite-based WiFi, Internet speeds on jetliners are getting lightning fast. And airlines are finding that travellers expect connections in the air to rival those on the ground – and at lower cost.

But the fast evolution of rival systems and standards, such as Ku band and Ka band, pose a big question for airlines: which one to choose?

Equipping fleets can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and airlines don't want to see their investment quickly become outdated because of newer technology. That's made some cautious about signing up.

"We don't want to end up with a Betamax," said Peter Ingram, chief financial officer of Hawaiian Airlines, referring to the Sony video format that eventually lost out to the VHS standard, leaving many consumers with obsolete systems.

Hawaiian is still considering which system to use.

The drive for in-flight connectivity also has intensified after the disappearance on March 8 of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 with 239 people aboard.

Search teams are scouring parts of the Indian Ocean for the missing aircraft, and it might have been better tracked if a satellite system capable of streaming cockpit data had been on board.

Global market

The United States market for airborne Internet got a big boost last November after the US Federal Aviation Administration allowed passengers to use smartphones, tablets and e-readers throughout a flight, ending a long-standing ban on their use during takeoff and landing.

While the change hasn't been adopted worldwide, the FAA's move is expected to lead to greater use of devices, and bandwidth, on planes.

About 40% of American jetliners already have some WiFi, but the race is on to wire the rest of a growing global fleet, and to make the existing connections better.

The number of commercial planes worldwide with WiFi, cell service or both is expected to more than triple over the next 10 years, to 14,000 from about 4,000 currently, with much of that growth in Asia, according to research firm IHS.

Even with a tripling, only half of the worldwide fleet will be wired in 2022, suggesting demand for new systems will last longer.

Much of the US fleet will need upgrades to access satellites, since many planes currently are equipped for ground-based transmission, which is typically slower than satellite.

"Passengers of the future want to be connected when they want," said Chris Emerson, senior vice-president of marketing at Airbus, during the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.

"Everyone wants Internet the way they have it on the ground, so it has to be cheap or free." – Reuters, April 14, 2014.

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