Economy

Why Your Airplane Wi-Fi Is Slow

When it came to 2008's big reveal of inflight Wi-Fi, the concept seemed nothing short of a miracle. It didn't take long for the idea—like many internet and cable services—to become a lot more appealing than the reality. Unreliable connections, speeds rivaling the advent of dial-up, and highly fluctuating prices were all par for the course when it came to consumers enjoying online pursuits inflight. Seven years later, not much has changed.

As frustrating as it is to lose a productive work day or Instagram opportunity inflight, the blame can no longer be placed in the hands of any government regulation. Instead, the responsibility is wrapped tight in the arms of the airlines themselves, the companies they’ve contracted to provide inflight internet connections...and consumers. Yes, we’re to blame too.

How inflight Wi-Fi works.

Currently, most domestic inflight Wi-Fi is delivered via ground-based technology. The connection bounces from ground tower to ground tower as the plane flies overhead offering notoriously spotty and slow speeds between 3.1 Mbps - 9.8 Mbps per flight. Typical of new technology, the system is fraught with problems.

A coverage disclaimer from inflight Wi-Fi provider GoGo reads:

Even within our nationwide coverage area, there are several factors that may interfere with actual service, quality, and availability, including the ability to initiate, validate, and maintain an inflight connection These factors include: network changes, aircraft and network traffic volume, service outages, technical limitations, signal strength, and other conditions.

The most progressive inflight WiFi eschews ground towers and is delivered via satellite. Providers like Jet Blue and Southwest were quick to embrace this new technology offering connection speeds between 50 - 80 Mbps — a big leap when compared to its ground-based predecessor. But satellite Wi-Fi isn’t immune to problems — including sluggish and slow connections.

The blame game.

Between installation and maintenance, upgrading a fleet of planes with Wi-Fi technology is expensive, by some accounts running more than $100,000 per plane. And both ground-based and satellite-based Wi-Fi come with an interesting rub that continues to make connection consistency an issue. For every plane equipped with Wi-Fi, each passenger shares the plane’s connection with every other passenger onboard. So the more people online at any given time, the more clogged the connection will become. With consumers ever more reliant on personal electronic devices and ever more expectant of immediate gratification, neither service is truly adequate in meeting consumer demand.

Given this, nearly a decade since the advent of inflight internet, not all planes are even equipped with Wi-Fi capabilities. According to a recent post by CNBC, the likelihood of boarding a random domestic flight on July 6, 2015 with Wi-Fi was a little over 60 percent, with Virgin Airlines being your best bet and United Airlines being your worst. [Note: this search did not include discount airlines like Frontier, which offers Wi-Fi only on their Embraer 190 aircraft and Spirit, which does not offer inflight Wi-Fi at all.]

The early adopters who rushed to outfit their fleets — Delta, American Airlines, and Virgin America — now find themselves stuck with painfully slow bandwidth as a result of outdated technology that's unable to keep up with growing consumer demand. Airlines late to adopt inflight Wi-Fi likely find themselves hesitant to commit to an expensive upgrade that may or may not outdate itself in a few short years.

Price tag progress

One thing that hasn’t been slow to progress is the price. In 2008, a GoGo Wi-Fi connection on Virgin America would cost $12.95. Today, that same connection — warts and all — will cost you $34.95. Consumers grumble, but still pay, leaving little incentive for companies to improve upon the service itself.

In a recent Condé Nast Traveler article, GoGo CEO Michael Small explained the ideology, “The whole purpose of the higher price is to keep people off the system. As we sit here with capacity scarce, we need to price high for simple supply and demand.”

“We haven’t found [the hardcore frequent flier business traveler’s] limit yet. They will pay anything and they would almost rather pay a higher price to keep the riff-raff off so they have all the bandwidth to themselves.” Small told Fortune magazine. The goal? To provide the best service possible with the outdated technology available to the heavy users who will pay anything to stay connected.

Even attempts by some airlines to make the world of inflight Wi-Fi seem more consumer-friendly are peppered with price tags. Jet Blue offers free Fly-Fi internet service that is touted as the “fastest” and doesn’t restrict high-bandwidth streaming services like Netflix. The rub here is that the “free” access only applies to users who want to check email and send iMessages. If you’re looking to take advantage of the airlines streaming capabilities or even simply a more full internet experience, you’ll have to pay an additional $9 an hour. A pricey expenditure for a cross-country flight.

The riff-raff.

Consumers share a portion of the blame too. By continuing to “consume” regardless of the cost, there is little incentive for airlines and inflight internet providers to hustle to adapt to consumer needs. Americans on average spend 11 hours a day interacting with electronic media, despite studies that show that the time we spend interacting with technology can negatively impact our physical and mental health, despite the benefits associated with disconnecting from technology and work, and despite the sheer amount of money we spend annually on technology. And with sites like Routehappy.com and Seatguru.com, both of which search for flights based on customer service ratings and amenities provided, there is little evidence that we're going to cut back on our devotion to Twitter, Facebook, and texting anytime soon. But really, would it be so bad to simply sit back, unplug, and enjoy the flight?