The Tech Behind: “WiFi on Air” at 30,000 feet!

klm-wifi-logo-largeIt’s fascinating to see that many airlines in United States are offering “WiFi on Air” packages to the passengers. Most of the passengers are happily paying for such packages, maybe not as much for actual utility, as for the delight of texting their friends – “Guess where I’m texting from?!” The technology is still in the nascent stage, where you can complain about it being expensive and yet too slow. However, it is undoubtedly a big leap in technology. Let’s see how all of this works out for us at over 30,000 ft!

There are primarily two ways in which a WiFi communication network can be established within the high-flying airplanes.

Air To Ground Based Link: The first one is Air to Ground based, where an antenna is attached to the bottom of the plane to transmit and receive signals from ground based towers. The working is pretty much the same as cellular connections, however the operating frequency is 3GHz. The signal is transmitted from the plane to the nearest ground tower, which in turn relays the signal to the ground station. The ground station transmits the data to the ground tower which in turn relays the signal to the plane. There are almost 200 ground towers in USA that are dedicated to establish this communication network and more and more are coming up. The bandwidth for data is not that great, at 3.2 Mbps, that too not for each customer but for the entire plane! So limit yourselves to texting without any Voice over IP and video streaming applications. Such a communication system can be made more effective by using directional antennas on the plane for a more focused capturing of beam and thus, enhancing the bandwidth to 9.8 Mbps. It is but obvious, that such a system will cry out loud when the plane is flying over water bodies, as there will be no nearest tower to relay the signal to/from!

Satellite Based Link: The second one is Satellite Based network, where an antenna is attached to the top of the plane to transmit and receive the signals to the ground stations via satellites. The plane sends a request for data to the satellites, which communicates the same to the ground station. The ground stations sends the data for the requested web page to the satellite, which in turn relays the same to the plane. In this kind of a communication link we can achieve data rates from 10-30 Mbps. The operating frequency is in the Ku Band i.e. 12-18GHz. The satellites can take care of communication over Atlantic and Pacific ocean too!

It will be intriguing to see how this technology morphs into a more sophisticated form with higher data rates, more connectivity and availability at cheaper cost, in the coming time. The fear of hacking into the plane system is minimal with the differentiation of the operating frequency bands, however, the risk of opening up more an more communication links can’t be denied.