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How Does WIFI Work on a Plane?

Have you ever wondered how WIFI works on a plane? How does a plane have an internet connection thousands of feet up in the sky when even a phone doesn’t have cellular data or any type of service? Furthermore, how is this connection strong enough to accommodate the hundreds of passengers onboard? Internet connection on a plane is a revolutionary invention and an astonishing breakthrough in air travel. In this article, we will explain how WIFI works on a plane and answer questions raised from this invention.

How It Works

WIFI on a plane works in either two ways. The first way is by constantly connecting to nearby cell towers on the ground. The process in which WIFI is produced from connecting to cell towers is called an ATG system. The ATG system works in a pretty basic way: Two antennas are installed on the belly of an aircraft and communicate to cell towers on the ground and distribute the connection to passengers. This method of providing internet connection on an aircraft is extremely slow and only provides a stable connection for activities such as checking an email. This type of WIFI is usually found on domestic and short-haul flights, but it is not reliable.

Wifi in Airplane: How Does Wifi Work On a Plane?
Credit: Science ABC

What happens when an aircraft flies over bodies of water and doesn’t have a cell tower to connect to? In this case, the aircraft looks up instead of down, and communicates with satellites. However, this method only works with airplanes with a Ku-Band system installed. A Ku-Band system requires an antenna to be installed on the top of an aircraft, which is why some airplanes have a dome shaped object on the fuselage. This dome directly connects to satellites in the atmosphere and takes the internet connection from the satellite and distributes it to passengers. Although this method of providing the internet is significantly faster than the ATG system, it does also come with some downsides. For one, there aren’t as many satellites in the sky as there are cell towers on the ground. This means that one satellite could be providing internet to multiple airplanes, which would lead to slower internet connection. Secondly, although the Ku-Band system has faster WIFI speeds, it has a greater delay, or latency, when operating. This is because satellites and airplanes are both moving objects. 

Aviation video - What is that bump on the fuselage for? - Lifestyle -  Aeronewstv
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Credit: OnAir

After all of this, you may be wondering why airlines still charge such an expensive fee for WIFI that seems almost virtually free. The expense doesn’t actually come from obtaining the WIFI, but rather from the instruments installed on the aircraft. The antennas and other equipment create drag on the aircraft, therefore increasing fuel consumption over time. To compensate for this loss of fuel, airlines charge money for the WIFI. Another reason why passengers are charged for WIFI is to prevent an overload of users on the network that could cause an unbelievably slow or unresponsive connection.

Today, inflight WIFI is becoming more readily accessible as more airlines are implementing it in their aircraft. Inflight WIFI has allowed passengers to be connected with what’s happening on the ground, which is something that was only a fantasy just a few decades ago. WIFI not only provides more comfort and entertainment to passengers, but also it introduces another way for airlines to generate money. Air travel has come a long way in the past couple of decades, and it has evolved greatly. Hopefully in the future, passengers will be able to experience even more innovations and technologies that change the way people travel.




Cover image is credited to: Reader’s Digest