How Does Inflight Wifi Work, Anyway?

Ever wonder how cell phone signals travel to 35,000 feet so your child can watch "Frozen" for the hundredth time? Here's how inflight WiFi can keep you connected.

Having to switch your devices off on airplanes is frustrating, especially when you’re on a business trip and need to stay in touch with the office or flying solo with kids on a long-haul journey. The good news is that inflight WiFi is becoming available on more and more airlines in place of traditional inflight entertainment. But how in the world does it work 35,000 feet up in the air? Well, this is just another piece of airplane trivia you never knew. Let’s get science-y:

First, there are two operating systems for airplane WiFi: ground-based and satellite. Air-to-ground WiFi works in a similar way to your cell phone. Airplanes have an antenna located underneath their body, which links up with cell towers. As the aircraft travels, it simply connects to the nearest transmitter on a rolling basis. The airplane becomes a hotspot, so passengers can do everything they would normally do when connected to the Internet, including sending emails, making calls, and even streaming movies. However, this system can’t work when the plane is flying over large expanses of water, like on transatlantic routes. That’s where satellite comes in.

Satellite WiFi uses a network of orbiting satellites to allow a connection. The satellite is linked to ground stations, and the airplane connects using a satellite antenna on the top of the fuselage. Again, the plane uses whichever satellite is nearest as it travels. Satellite WiFi operates on two different bandwidths: narrowband and broadband. Both allow passengers full Internet access, although the narrower options are less suitable for streaming movies. While waiting on a layover, keep your data safe with a mobile hotspot.

The number of airlines offering inflight WiFi is increasing rapidly. You may need to book directly with the airline, and some operators require a single-use pass or package from a provider such as Gogo. This is also a useful option if you fly frequently with different airlines. The price is usually higher for greater bandwidth, but for your company, it may be worth the investment. Keep an eye out for these hidden airplane features you had no idea existed either.

Fortunately, inflight WiFi connectivity is poised to improve across the board. Technology such as Gogo’s 2Ku system is steadily improving reliability, which is enabling more airlines to introduce WiFi for both domestic and international flights. JetBlue offers standard free wireless Internet service on all domestic flights, and Air Alaska offers free texting over WiFi on all flights as well as the promise of expanded, faster WiFi with Gogo’s 2Ku system through 2020. As of now, most Air Alaska flights offer basic WiFi services on flights in North America. If you plan on using open WiFi at any point during your trip, make sure you know the risks and how to use it properly.

Of course, easy Internet access is awesome—until the guy next to you drones on for two straight hours about mortgage futures. So as inflight WiFi becomes as commonplace as beverage service, cell phone manners and other flight etiquette rules should still apply.

Elizabeth Manneh
Elizabeth is an experienced freelance writer, specializing in health & wellness, education & learning, family life & parenting, and women's issues. She's been published on Huffington Post, and was a regular contributor to Love Live Health and Daily Home Remedy. Elizabeth is a retired primary school principal and education consultant, with a continuing passion for education and learning. She's familiar with writing newsletters, reports to stakeholders, financial reports, business plans and evaluation reports.