The race to provide In-flight Internet connectivity that actually works has grown more competitive in recent months as a small number of vendors have been tweaking their technology and aggressively pursuing new contracts in their quest for domination of the online skies. The result may well be a much improved connected airplane next year, not just for travelers in the U.S., but throughout Europe and other continents as well.

New technology may improve in-flight browsing

As most air travelers know, Internet connectivity at 35,000 feet has been mediocre at best.

Slow speeds and dropped connections have led to passenger frustration and a general sense that the Wi-Fi experience in the friendly skies may take longer to reach the same level of performance as found on the ground.

But there have been some important changes in the technology used to provide airplane Wi-Fi. Previous systems relied on air-to-ground connections that proved unreliable as aircraft moved rapidly over land-based cell towers.

The next generation technology employs Satellites to provide broadband service and they are faster (with speeds up to 70 Mbps) and more reliable than ground-based systems.

One company is even promising bandwidth speeds of 1Tbps, which could finally make streaming movies a viable option.

“We’re not really delivering the Internet to an airplane, we’re delivering it to consumers,” said Don Buchman of ViaSat, who spoke at a panel session held during the NAB Show in Las Vegas this year and covered by this columnist.

Buchman’s company and another in this space, Gogo, have been engaged in a major battle for in-flight contracts. American Airlines, which had previously used Gogo’s technology, announced last June that they would install ViaSat’s satellite-based Wi-Fi on their newly-ordered planes by the end of next year.

American actually sued Gogo in February over failure to provide expected service, but then agreed four months later to use the company’s new satellite system on the airline’s existing Airbus fleet instead.

Gogo continues to expand in other markets. The in-flight broadband provider just received approval from regulatory agencies in China to offer satellite-based connectivity on international flights in and out of the country starting in October.

Europe, normally a leader many tech areas, has surprisingly lagged behind in the adoption of in-flight connectivity.

Regulatory issues in the European Union have been a reason. However, a recent partnership between Inmarsat Plc and Deutsche Telekom has brought Lufthansa flights into the Internet-connected world, and EasyJet expects to announce new service soon.

Expanded Wi-Fi use could raise issues

A couple of concerns loom over the airlines’ Internet connectivity in the skies. One revolves around revenue and what airlines can reasonably expect by offering the service, since early forays have not contributed significantly to the bottom line.

Industry experts who spoke at the NAB conference believe that once passengers use the service (assuming it meets expectations for speed and reliability) they won’t give it up. And there is also the feeling that no airline can lose competitive advantage, even if the profits aren’t there. “If you’re not supplying it, someone else will,” said ViaSat’s Buchman.

The other major issue is security. The prospect of so many people surfing on one network in a tight space may prove tantalizing to enterprising hackers.

While airlines are tempted to justify the cost by placing their own in-flight communication protocols on the network, concerns remain over whether this might make airplane control systems vulnerable to attack.

Despite these issues, recent improvements in the technology and strong interest by airlines to make Internet service available means that that high flying Wi-Fi may finally have arrived. Get ready for 2017, the year of the fully connected airplane cabin.

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