The Beginning and Future of Airborne Wifi

couple using wifi to browse on their tablet and laptop on private jet
••• Brand New Images / Getty Images

Airborne wi-fi has overtaken the aviation industry. According to surveys, in-flight wi-fi service is the number one feature that frequent flyers want when they fly. The good news is that the service creates revenue opportunities for airlines, manufacturers, private jet operators, and maintenance shops. Here is a quick review of the ins and outs of broadband at 41,000 feet.

The Companies That Offered Airborne Wifi in the Beginning

Broomfield, Colorado-based Aircell, which was later bought by Gogo and branded as Gogo Business Aviation, obtained an exclusive license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2006 to provide in-flight broadband service. In the same year, companies began to offer wifi services for free. 

The Airlines That Were the First to Sign Up

Most major U.S. carriers offer Internet service on at least some of their aircraft. All AirTran and Virgin America flights offer broadband, while select Air Canada, Alaska, Delta, United, and US Airways airplanes do. Frontier is under contract to outfit its entire fleet.

The Number of Airplanes That Offer Internet Service

According to Aircell, 1015 North American airliners offer in-flight wifi, with more being added weekly.

The Requirements for Adding Wifi Capabilities to an Airplane

Installation requires just eight hours and a forearm-sized external antenna. The complete system weighs less than 125 pounds, so there is little if any impact on aircraft performance or fuel consumption.

The Availability of High-Speed Internet Service on Business Jets

Nationwide operators such as NetJets, XOJet, and Flexjet are adding Gogo in-flight wifi services to their fleets, while Dassault Falcon Jet, Cessna, and Hawker Beechcraft offer the system as an option on newly manufactured jets. Most existing aircraft can be retrofitted for wifi.

The Cost of Installation

The approximate cost of airborne wifi is around $100,000 per aircraft. Airlines recoup this expense through revenue sharing with Aircell. Most private jet operators offer the service to ensure repeat business but do not share in the revenues.

Why Did Some Airlines Lag in Providing Wifi

Nobody can say for sure. JetBlue pioneered live DirecTV service and experimented with free in-flight e-mail, IM, and Internet access in 2007 and finally announced plans to equip its fleet in 2010. And Southwest rolled out a competing service to GoGo shortly after, following a series of tests on a limited number of aircraft.

The Limitations of Carriers

Due to bandwidth restrictions, VOIP calls on services such as Skype are prohibited, as is live video and audio streaming. Airlines can also restrict content that may offend passengers, although for now travelers are mainly limited by their sense of decency and decorum.

Airborne Cell Calls and the Future

Despite the success of airborne broadband, passengers are unlikely to be able to make cell phone calls anytime soon, and that’s probably good news for most people. The FAA and FCC continue to stand in the way of applicants wanting to establish airborne cellular service. Airborne wifi service is the wave of the future. With so much customer demand, carriers that delay installation do so at considerable risk.