ALM Properties, Inc.
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No Rest for the Connected
There are two kinds of attorneys on airplanes: those who view their time in the sky as a respite from communications and those who have memorized the entire list of approved electronic devices. For both camps, in-flight Internet has largely been a disappointment. For the turn-it-on crowd, that's because of slow speeds, unpredictable availability, and a complete absence on the international routes of U.S. carriers. For the turn-it-off contingent, wellthat's because it exists. This status quo, however, is about to change, for better or worse, depending on how you look at it.
In use, in-flight Wi-Fi doesn't look much different from airline to airline. Boot up a browser, connect to the network, and enter a credit card number or a log-in (you can generally expect to pay between $5 and $25 on a pay-as-you-fly basis, or $40$50 per month if a subscription plan is available). But behind the scenes, carriers use one of two very different technologies to bring the Internet onto their aircraft. Both are getting upgraded.
The first system is known as Air to Ground, or ATG. Essentially, this is a broadband cellular networkjust like those used for phonesthat has been flipped around. Instead of directing signals down from cell towers, ATG points them up. Antenna on ATGequipped aircraft pick up these signals and distribute them through the cabin via Wi-Fi. The advantage is that, just like traditional cell networks, ATG can hand off a "call" (a.k.a. Internet session) from tower to tower as you move, so you're not suddenly disconnected.
Of course, airplanes cover a lot of ground, so an ATG system needs a lot of cell towers. Gogothe Illinois company that provides Wi-Fi for eight U.S. carriers as well as Air Canadahas a network of 150 land-based towers. The key phrase is "land-based." Gogo has no towers in the ocean. This is why airlines that have deployed ATG don't use it on their international fleets. ATG gets another rap, too: less than stellar speeds. It is capable of rates up to 3.1 megabits per second (Mbps)comparable to a 3G smartphonebut users often see far less than that, particularly when many other flyers are online. In general, ATG is fine for email and light Web surfing, but you won't be watching CLE seminars.
Enter ATG-4. This newer, faster version of the technology was announced by Gogo last year, and by January had been installed on some 100 aircraft flying for Delta Air Lines, US Airways, and Virgin America. ATG-4 boosts peak speed to 9.8 Mbps.
The second approach to airborne Internetvia satellitesis also getting a makeover. Satellites get around the over-water problem by relying on spacecraft instead of cell towers, and are the preferred method of foreign carriers like British Airways and Lufthansa. But the equipment is heavier, more expensive, and more time-consuming to install than ATG. Speeds, meanwhile, can be even slower. The leading satellite-based provider, Switzerland-based OnAir (whose systems have been deployed on 15 airlines), uses a satellite link that operates in the L-band of the electromagnetic spectrum, with peak speed coming in at less than 1 Mbps.
Newer solutions, using the Ku and Ka bands, allow for greater bandwidth. Already, companies like Panasonic Avionics and California's Row 44 Inc. are deploying Ku-band systems (in January, United Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to equip an international-bound jet with Wi-Fi, using Panasonic's system). OnAir plans to launch a Ka-band solution in 2014 or early 2015. Even Gogo has gotten on board, so to speak. It now offers Ku-band connectivity in addition to its ATG offerings, in order to expand into international routes (as of January, it had commitments for 400 aircraft).
Still, while improved service is coming, Internet in the air will continue, at least in the short term, to have quirks and limits that users need to be aware of. Among the most important:
So how do the airlines themselves stack up? Here's what U.S. carriers have deployedand what they expect to deploy in the near future:
To be sure, airline Wi-Fi is still a work in progress. But buckle up. Because the ride is going to be getting a lot smootheror far more unpleasant.
Alan Cohen is a New Yorkbased writer who frequently reports on law and technology.