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May 14, 2009

Wi-Fi for the skies: who's ahead and how it works

Posted: 12:59 PM ET

AirTran made a bunch of news yesterday for announcing that it will have Wi-Fi on all of its planes by summer.

The airline claims to be the first to do this. But saying which airline is ahead of another in terms of mile-high Internet offerings is a bit dizzying. Virgin tells the Dallas Morning News that it will actually be the first to have an entire fleet of planes equipped for Wi-Fi. Virgin's fleet is much smaller than AirTran's, though. And Delta, which has more planes than either, may actually have more planes fitted with wireless Internet than AirTran by summer, but it's not the whole Delta fleet. American also jumped into the mix, according to engadget.

So that race is messy and tough to call. What's clear is that Wi-Fi is becoming a mainstream thing - and airlines are using the technology as a way to one-up each other. This wasn't always the case. A few years ago, the common thinking was that customers weren't willing pay extra for the service, according to news reports.

On the cultural side of this change, the NYT blog says airplane Wi-Fi means there's one less place you can go to disconnect from the Web:

So the actual service is uneventful; the real news here is the cultural ramifications. Used to be that the plane ride was the last remaining chunk of incommunicado time, the last place on earth where no BlackBerry buzzes and no e-mail comes in.

But not anymore.

Let’s just look at the bright side: you still can’t make cellphone calls on planes. Yet.

My big question while reading all of this was technological: Why does Wi-Fi work in a plane when flight attendants still ask passengers to turn off their iPods?

Thank you, Slate, for having the answer:

It [wi-fi] operates on a totally different frequency. Cell phones transmit signals at roughly the same frequencies as aircraft communications—pilot radios and radar range from below 100 to 2,000 MHz, and many phones operate at 850 MHz or 1,900 MHz. Your cell could therefore—at least theoretically—interfere with navigation. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, signals at a higher frequency—anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 MHz—and thus won't get mixed up with the plane's transmissions.

In-flight Wi-Fi works like a moving Starbucks hot spot. The plane is rigged with three antennae—two on its belly and one on top—that receive signals from towers across the country. The frequency of those transmissions, 849 MHz, is within the range of airline communications. But they don't interfere with the plane's navigation, since 849 MHz is a dedicated frequency that was auctioned off and bought in 2006 by Aircell, which services American, Delta, and Virgin. (It's the same frequency once used by Airfone.)

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David   May 15th, 2009 5:05 pm ET

That's great News! Not only will it keep passengers entertained, it will also allow us telephone usage. The Apple iPhone has a VoIP application that runs off Wi-Fi. Turn on your Airplane Mode, than turn on Wi-Fi!!

Gregory Faith   May 16th, 2009 1:32 pm ET

Will it be free?
As already mentioned, by dding Wi-Fi to commercial airliners will allow business travelers to become more efficient at thier jobs. The casual traveler will now be able to entertain themselves during the flights. I just hope everyone remembers to bring headphones along with them. All the dings, sounds, conversations online will interfere with the people who try to sleep while in flight.

Now, will we ever see a return of good airline food service?

wrytous   May 16th, 2009 11:53 pm ET

Yeah, that's great news, David! I'm so looking forward to listening to your telephone conversations at 30,000 feet!!

Ben   May 17th, 2009 2:36 pm ET

Great! Just what I need, some yahoo yacking on the phone about something I could care less to hear about while I'm flying across the country.

Van   May 17th, 2009 11:01 pm ET

Great! Just what I need – to listen to some idiot's conversation next to me while cruising the "friendly skies". The airlines think they are offering an amenity, but in actuality what they offer is further degradation to an already lousy product. I suspect there will be more in-air confrontations between passengers, because for the most part, people are inconsiderate and rude (expecially the "teathered generation). Heaven help us all!

A320 Mike   May 18th, 2009 12:47 pm ET

I fly as part of my business and I am a big man. It is one thing to say you have Wifi and another thing to make it work. Virgin is the best. Wifi and a 110v plug at every seat means I have uninterrupted productivity for the entire flight. With the entertainment system in the aircraft I watch CNN at the same time. You can plug in your cell phone to the USB power plug and charge it up. You order your food and drinks through the RED system and moments later a tap on your shoulder and you have it. I think Virgin is the only airline that has it all. Wifi does not work well when the battery in your lap top goes dead.

Toby   May 18th, 2009 8:45 pm ET

I assume this will cost about as much per minute as the flight itself.

David D.   July 20th, 2009 10:52 am ET

It is somewhat pricey at $8 a flight or $12 a day, but at least when I flew they gave out free wifi cards at the gate that had a promo code that you can use. The code is the same in every card and it doesn't expire for a few months. just register with a different email address every time you use it and you won't pay a dime! Also I might add that it's somewhat slow, but that is something I expected. When I ran a speed test, the download speed was about 600 Kbps. Otherwise it worked very well, I just wish AirTran had power outlets to plug your laptop into.

Brad   February 6th, 2010 3:35 pm ET

What about the exposure to electromagnetic fields? Doesn't sound like baking in radio waves for hours in a narrow metal tube is very healthy, especially considering long-term risks. There's already been much concern about Wi-Fi technology in schools, and potential risks to children. Various laws around the country restrict the location of cell tower due to health concerns to residents and schoolchildren, but now we're bringing the technology and risk inside? Seems like this issue could become the equivalent to smoking on an airplane–popular and unquestioned when it first came around, then illegal and unthinkable after many died from cancer–all the while the industry and government at the time said the risk was negligible, unfounded, could not be replicated from study to study, etc. Stay tuned (or not, so to speak).

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