High-speed broadband joins the jet age

Internet access on aircraft will soon become much faster thanks to improved satellites. It could even be free

Airline passengers pining for faster in-flight internet access anywhere in the world – even over the oceans – are about to get their wish as satellite operators find success where Boeing failed a decade ago. Stronger, more focused signals from spacecraft lofted by providers such as Intelsat will replace cobbled-together connections meant for mobile phones and television broadcasts. Costs will fall, too, eventually making onboard broadband a free amenity to win travellers' loyalty, according to industry executives.

The technology is poised to bring sweeping changes in airborne wi-fi, which is now marked by cumbersome downloads, dead zones and scant public enthusiasm. ViaSat, whose service will debut on the low-cost US airline JetBlue next month, promises more satellite-delivered bandwidth for each passenger than the current market leader Gogo can offer to an entire plane.

"Ten years ago, we used to use dial-up; nobody does that any more," Tim Mahoney, the chief executive of the aerospace unit of Honeywell International, a satellite-hardware supplier, said. "That evolution that we've gone through in our home setting is going to take place on the aircraft." So-called spot beams from the new satellites deliver a more-concentrated signal than those blanketing a region with TV images.

There is enough bandwidth for scores of fliers to share, with moving jets handed seamlessly from one beam to another. It is akin to connecting a Starbucks coffee shop full of wi-fi users, if the store were zipping through the stratosphere. Inmarsat, which will pipe its signal through Honeywell equipment, plans to girdle the globe with three spot-beam satellites launched by 2014.

Intelsat expects its first Epic satellite will be in space in 2015. By then, JetBlue plans to have ViaSat's wi-fi on all its planes, according to the airline's chief executive, Dave Barger.

In-flight internet is available on only about 40 per cent of the US and Canadian airline fleets, said Jim Breen, a Boston-based William Blair & Co analyst. Usage is even less: the satellite provider Global Eagle Entertainment estimates only about 5 per cent of fliers on internet-enabled planes pay to hop online.

"When the plane lands, almost everybody immediately pulls out their phones," said Mark Dankberg, the chief executive of ViaSat. "That gives you a sense of how many people would use it if it were better."

Cory Levy, the co-founder and chief operating officer of the mobile application company One Inc, is part of that unsatisfied group. He buys wi-fi on only about half of the weekly flights he makes between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"Fifty per cent of the time, it works really well and probably 50 per cent of the time on the SF to LA flight I can't even get Gmail to load," Mr Levy said. "It's sort of like a hit or miss."

Aerial wi-fi was kicked around for years as a concept before Boeing introduced Connexion, a service sold to airlines to deliver broadband via a global satellite network. Unveiled in 2000, the programme faltered as travel slumped after the 11 September terror attacks, and Boeing pulled the plug in 2006.

That left a void filled by Gogo, whose system of ground towers and mobile-phone spectrum grabbed the largest share of the US in-flight internet market, serving carriers including American Airlines and United Airlines. Gogo charges fees such as $14 for an all-day service.

Panasonic Avionics, Global Eagle and others jumped in, too, knitting together systems with satellites designed for direct-to-home television.Like the mobile-phone technology, the older spacecraft had limits on broadband speed. Gogo's system only provides a signal over land, creating hours-long web blackouts on overwater flights. "When you're stuck going far over the Atlantic for nine hours, there's only so many movies you can watch," said Matt Kepnes, who flies to Europe and South-east Asia about once a month for his New York-based travel blog, Nomadic Matt.

"I like getting on my computer and chatting on Facebook and talking to my friends, checking my email and getting some work done." Gogo plans to migrate to satellite to help expand overseas and boost speed, according to its chief executive Michael Small.

"Air-to-ground was a unique situation that worked just right in the US for us to get the early lead," Mr Small added. "But in the long run, it will be predominantly a satellite solution."

Still unsettled are technological questions such as which spectrum is most efficient for in-flight internet, leaving airlines to weigh conflicting claims.

Satellites for the Californian-based ViaSat and Inmarsat, which is based in London, use the higher-frequency Ka band, which potentially has twice the capacity, said Chris Quilty, an analyst at Raymond James Financial. Their Luxembourg-based rival Intelsat's Epic satellite will use the Ku band, the workhorse spectrum in the past decade, and will be able to match rivals' power, its chief executive David McGlade said.

Airlines' choices will lock them into one system or the other because antennas for the different bands are not compatible, echoing the VHS-versus-Beta videocassette battle. The cost of equipment and aircraft downtime for installation precludes switching easily, Mr Quilty said.

JetBlue's chief executive Mr Barger said the airline will start ViaSat wi-fi trials on three planes next month, before pushing the service to all its larger Airbus SAS planes next year.

Internet access will be free on the first 30 ViaSat-equipped planes, said Morgan Johnston, a spokesman. After that, there may be a fee for heavy use such as streaming videos. Mr Johnston said New York-based JetBlue is not discussing pricing, saying only the service will be "obtainable to anyone on the plane".

Passengers over time will want to be connected in the air like they are on the ground, for free, Mr Dankberg said. New satellites will lower airlines' internet cost to the equivalent of a beverage and bag of peanuts per passenger, prodding carriers to offer the service to everyone, he said.

"You go to Starbucks and you can get free wi-fi, but you don't feel obligated to use it," Mr Dankberg said. "That should become clear fairly soon that free is what people want."

With assistance from Mary Schlangenstein and John Lear

Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on TV
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Sport
Emmanuel Adebayor, Tim Sherwood and Hugo Rodellega
sportThe latest news and scores
News
Brand said he
people
VIDEO
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
The North Korean TV advert for Taedonggang beer, that became a YouTube hit
food + drinkAnd what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Telesales & Sales Support Apprentice

£221.25 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a well established Inter...

Client Relationship Manager - SQL, Python

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Client Relationship Manager - SQL...

**Financial Services Tax**

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: Take your chance to join the...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit