In the 1990s, accessing the internet meant waiting and listening for a dial-up tone on your home computer before you could enjoy the thrill of having an entire world of information at your fingertips. That thrill was often short-lived and replaced with frustration when the connection timed out and the dial-up process had to be repeated.
It might seem like a long time ago, given the ease with which we are all now constantly and instantly connected via our smartphones and other devices. But internet service on the ground has come an incredibly long way in a relatively short space of time. The same thing is now happening 35,000 feet in the air.
In 2004, several years after we began dialing up to patchy internet connections in our homes, Germany’s Lufthansa became the first commercial airline to provide in-flight connectivity to its passengers. This was made possible through an agreement with Boeing for its pioneering high-speed in-flight connectivity service, Connexion by Boeing, which the US aircraft manufacturer first announced in 2000.
A downturn in the US airline industry in the early 2000s meant domestic airlines that had considered launching the service pulled out, and Boeing had to “change its plans and delay its commercial introduction,” according to a statement on the manufacturer’s website.
Passengers on that first connected Lufthansa flight from Munich to Los Angeles were charged just shy of $30 to access the service for the duration of their journey, or $10 for 30 minutes and then 25 cents per minute thereafter.
As Paul Metselaar, chairman and chief executive of Ovation Travel Group, wrote in this article for U.S. business publication Inc., those early in-flight internet connections were “generally slow and spotty, and initial use of the service required big, clunky cords, but there was also an undeniable excitement to browsing the Internet and sending emails at 30,000 feet.”
The seed had been well and truly planted, even though Boeing ended up pulling the plug on its Connexion service in 2006. At the time, Boeing chairman and chief executive Jim McNerney said the market for in-flight Wi-Fi had “not materialized” as the company had hoped.
This was, arguably, a badly timed exit from the in-flight connectivity market. The following year, Apple released its first iPhone and the smartphone rapidly became the ubiquitous accessory it is today.
The next wave
After Boeing’s exit, a wave of in-flight connectivity providers started to water the seed it had planted, and the airborne Wi-Fi market started to grow. One of those providers – Viasat – had a key advantage: It had supplied the broadband terminals used by Boeing for its Connexion service.
This early involvement, together with Viasat’s development of the SKYLink communications system for what was then ARINC’s Ku-band connectivity service for business jets, helped create the skillsets needed to launch its own commercial aviation in-flight broadband service with JetBlue Airways in December 2013.
JetBlue’s revolutionary Ka-band broadband service, branded by the airline as Fly-Fi and powered by Viasat’s service, represented a step change in the speed and quality of in-flight Wi-Fi. It proved for the first time that passengers could access the internet in the air without having to compete for bandwidth with their fellow passengers.
When the service launched with JetBlue, Viasat’s Don Buchman said in a press statement: “There’s a simple reason why air travelers haven’t had access to fast broadband: Legacy technologies don’t enable a sufficient amount of bandwidth delivery to the plane at a cost that makes sense for airlines or consumers.”
“(The Viasat service) changes the game and we think passengers are really going to enjoy a fast online experience that’s more like what they get at their home or office for in-flight email, web browsing, social media, and other common Internet activities.”
Things have moved on a lot since then. ViaSat-2 launched in 2017, providing even more capacity and greater coverage, and more and more airlines around the world installed Viasat’s in-flight broadband service on their aircraft. ViaSat-2 expanded Ka-band coverage to include the primary aeronautical and maritime routes across the Atlantic Ocean, bridging North America and Europe.
Fast forward to today and, for most, airborne Wi-Fi is no longer considered a luxury. Instead, airline passengers not only expect it when they board a plane, they expect it to work as well as it does on the ground. In the future, they may also expect it to be free of charge, as it is on JetBlue’s flights.
There’s some precedent for changing expectations when it comes to internet service.
Not too long ago, Wi-Fi in hotels was spotty and expensive to access. This is no longer deemed acceptable. Hotel guests now take it for granted that they will be able to access the internet in their rooms to catch up on work or browse their social media feeds, without first having to hand over their credit card details. This same trend is expected to sweep the in-flight connectivity market, and high-capacity satellites like those operated by Viasat will make it possible.
The capacity, quality and speed ushered in to the airborne connectivity market by improved satellite technology is also having a profound impact on in-flight entertainment. It is allowing passengers to be active rather than passive in the type of content they consume.
In the past, an overhead monitor showed movies to everyone on the plane – regardless of personal taste. If you didn’t like what was on, you were out of luck. The onset of seatback screens and stored libraries of movies and TV shows later gave passengers more choice in their entertainment content – if they scrolled through the options for long enough, they were more likely to find something that interested them.
The rise of high-speed, satellite-based in-flight connectivity brings a whole new dimension of choice when it comes to entertainment. It allows airline passengers to stream their own content to their own devices in their own time, just as they do on the ground. It enables them to watch live sporting events in the air and to communicate in real time with friends, family and co-workers while they travel.
And it’s not only passengers who benefit. A connected aircraft helps cabin crew better serve their customers. Whether it is conducting real-time debit card transactions in the air, providing detailed, up-to-the-minute flight transfer information ahead of landing, or providing a more personalized service based on individual preferences, fast, reliable internet access makes it all possible.
A connected cockpit provides pilots with access to the latest weather and air traffic updates, which can help them better plan their routes to avoid adverse conditions and congestion. This not only reduces delays but can also result in the plane burning less fuel by finding more efficient routes - a win-win both in terms of cutting costs for the airline and cutting carbon dioxide emissions.
More satellites, more opportunities
In the future, it is expected that sponsorship opportunities will enable airlines to satisfy passenger demand for complimentary in-flight Wi-Fi. It has been proven on airlines that already offer free broadband access – such as Viasat customers JetBlue and Qantas on its domestic flights – that take-up rates increase dramatically when passengers don’t have to pay.
When more people tune in, opportunities for advertising to this captive audience increase. This gives rise to the potential for external companies to sponsor the service, thereby offsetting the cost for airlines and allowing them to provide free access to their passengers.
This is already happening at JetBlue through a value-added sponsorship deal with Amazon. The online retailing giant offers JetBlue passengers who access the in-flight Wi-Fi a 30-day free trial of its Prime service. This is a three-way win: passengers enjoy free streaming; Amazon gets access to potential new Prime customers; and JetBlue is able to offset the cost of providing in-flight connectivity.
None of this can happen without a fast, reliable internet connection enabled by a high-capacity satellite constellation. Viasat is nearing the launch of its next constellation, ViaSat-3, which, when complete, will enable it to offer full, global Ka-band coverage for airlines. The first ViaSat-3 satellite is expected to launch in 2021.
Each of the three ViaSat-3 satellites is expected to offer over 1 Terabit per second of total network capacity – a substantial jump from ViaSat-1 (approximately 140 Gigabits per second, or Gbps) and ViaSat-2 (approximately 260 Gbps). This means that fast, reliable, high-quality, global Ka-band in-flight broadband—and all the opportunities for corporate sponsorship and free access for passengers that go with it — will get even better.
In the meantime, airlines in regions not yet covered by Viasat’s Ka-band network can still access its service through a hybrid Ku-/Ka-band antenna. This provides a global solution today aimed at being forward-compatible with tomorrow’s ViaSat-3 technology.
All this capacity also opens up new opportunities for how passengers will entertain themselves on flights in the not-too-distant future. For instance, virtual reality goggles could one day become a common sight in aircraft cabins, as passengers immerse themselves in a world of live entertainment content.
In-flight connectivity will become even more important in a post-COVID world where the desire to remain connected at all times is likely to be even greater than the already strong demand that existed before the crisis. Shelter-in-place orders aimed at stemming the spread of the disease have made the internet an even bigger part of people’s lives, as we have all been forced to work, school, shop and entertain ourselves from home via our broadband connections.
While the airline industry has been hit hard by COVID-related travel restrictions, demand for air travel will return and it will go hand in hand with an increased desire to stay connected – not just for work and social interactions but also for personalized entertainment.
The options for using in-flight Wi-Fi in the future to pass the time on long flights are limitless, and a far cry from the slow, unreliable connections that have characterized airborne broadband services in the past. The sky really is the limit and Viasat, which has been there from the early beginnings of in-flight Wi-Fi, will continue to play a dominant role in the future progression of this exciting, rapidly developing market.