The Service We Love to Hate: Airplane Wifi

by | Feb 21, 2017

It is amazing what we can get used to.  I remember the first airplane I flew on with wifi about six years ago. Mind blown! Internet in the air!  Now, when I fly it is frustrating when the plane doesn’t have wifi.  Even if it does have wifi it’s slowwwww and you can’t stream videos or music.

Currently, there are two types of airplane wifi: (1) Air-to-Ground and (2) Satellite.

The primary provider of Air-to-Ground wifi is Gogo. There are about 200 towers around North America with which aircraft connect.  It is amazing to think that flying 30,000 feet in the air and travelling at over 500 mph that wifi connection is seamlessly handed off from tower to tower. With Air-To-Ground the antennae are on the bottom of the plane. There is limited bandwidth with Air-To-Ground wifi. Obviously, Air-To-Ground does not work over the ocean (no towers). Map of Gogo Air-To-Ground coverage:


Satellite wifi depends on satellites in geosynchronous orbit.  The airplane connects to these satellites 22,000 Miles above the earth and the satellites communicate with transmitters on earth.

Satellite wifi has a disadvantage as compared to Air-To-Ground as the signal has to travel 22,000 miles into space and then 22,000 miles to the ground and then back. Internet usage requires back-and-forth communication between the computer and the internet so the extra time the satellite signal takes will continue to be a disadvantage.  However, streaming mainly requires just one-way communication, so as bandwidth increases, streaming via satellite will become viable. An satellite antenna bump on a Southwest 737:


Big improvements to Ground-to-Air and Satellite wifi are in the works. Expect faster connection times in the future as well as the ability to stream.  Someday.


  1. This ifod came in handy (or at least helped with my patience) as I flew this weekend to LA on Southwest. I was able to watch TV (stream) just fine but it took the better part of the flight and most of my computer battery to send three relatively small emails. In the past, it would have baffled me as to why I could watch TV no problem, but could not get the small emails out of my “outbox.” Thanks for making things make sense! I think I’ll stick to watching TV on future Southwest flights.

  2. Low earth orbiting satellites like the Iridium satellites put into space about 10 years ago are a potential solution to the latency issue involved with geosynchronous satellites. Iridium is in the process of putting a new constellation of 80+ satellites into orbit. These satellites communicate via Laser between the satellites and then down to earth or in the case of an airplane up to the plane. I would expect Iridium to be a major player in the airplane WIFI business.


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