Applying the 10 Year Rule to Airborne WiFi

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Sitting on this flight to AWS Re:Invent in Las Vegas, I’m looking out the window at the flat Midwest landscape. Squares of beige and brown checker the ground until they fade into a white haze of clouds on the horizon, bordered by thin brown lines of rural roads. Little white pins of white turbines usually follow some river and there’s the occasional lake or reservoir.

About two years ago, I switched from the aisle seat to the window seat. It seems switching to daily intermittent fasting and a ketogenic diet has the weird benefit of not having to get up as often to use the bathroom. It’s nice to be able to look at the window and on this flight, I play a game with myself to see if I can figure out where we are as there’s no chair back in flight entertainment system (IFE). It’s a 767 Air Canada Rouge flight(Air Canada’s “fun” subsidiary, referred to as Rogue on Flyertalk) and there’s no Internet access that I could use to check the trip progress.

I’ve been thinking about how the 10 Year Rule could apply to in flight WiFi. In the nearly 10 years since I became a frequent flyer, I’ve seen an evolution of in flight IFEs including WiFi. The first time I experienced WiFi onboard, around 2010, it was such a novelty. “Hiya! I’m writing you from 36,000 ft!” or “Greetings from somewhere over Nebraska.” It was usually on United rather than Air Canada and could cost $20–30 per flight to have a few hours of access. It meant being able to continue to research or have fire stomping emails go out during the flight.

A few years back, Air Canada announced most of its fleet would have WiFi onboard and then this ability also rolled out to international flights. Last year, I got to experience WiFi over the Atlantic and it definitely made the flight go faster. Some airlines, like on an Eva Airways flight I took in June, offer up their own cell signal that allowed for text messaging and roaming data (and the shock I got for not disabling this on my phone during the flight… a $100 charge for 5 MB of data).

Even on this flight, where there isn’t an Internet connection, there’s still WiFi that connects to a local server with video and music (that…ugh… requires flash in a browser to play) and Rouge announced true connectivity across its fleet in about a year.

Gogo Inflight, an aircraft WiFi ISP, first rolled out onboard WiFi in 2008. Ten years on, most North American flights have some form of WiFi onboard, according to a report by RouteHappy last January. It’s now more of the exception to not have WiFi onboard and almost all airlines have announced some plans to put WiFi onboard in the next two years.

Looking at where connectivity will be in a few years time, we’re probably another five years out before we have a similar experience with on board WiFi as we have with our own in home.

What can we expect when airborne WiFi hits the 10 year mark? Some predictions…

  • Free or low cost. No more hotel circa 2004 rates. Delta has already announced free WiFi.
  • Fast. 1 Gbps download speeds.
  • Reliable. Even with turbulence. Even on take off, climb, descent, and landing.

Beyond that, we might be looking at in flight 5G access. Plans for global satellite broadband coverage would mean we this happens everywhere, all the time.

The impact could mean that airlines can’t hide bad service (check out the horror story below by one airline vlogger as uploaded his review of the flight while he was onboard), in flight entertainment systems disappear or become endpoints for Casting or AirPlay, and there’s no where to escape from work (maybe a Faraday cage float spa).

At that point, we might see airlines try to create shareable moments and focus on unique experiences. It’s the same way that McDonald’s is fast food but has spruced up its restaurants with granite countertops.

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