By Stephanie Kinch, Wi-Fi NOW Staff Writer
There’s Wi-Fi coverage on Mount Everest. There’s Wi-Fi coverage on the International Space Station. There’s Wi-Fi on the North Pole. Why isn’t there reliable Wi-Fi coverage on commercial airlines?
For many, reliable onboard Wi-Fi is the final frontier for online connectivity. Luckily, this struggle may soon be over – at least in Europe – with a new airplane Wi-Fi network from the European Aviation Network (EAN). The system combines existing satellite coverage with a ground-based 4G LTE network to create faster and more reliable Wi-Fi coverage for flights operating in the European Union.
“EAN’s ground network had to meet technical prerequisites that are quite different from normal LTE networks: it needs to work at speeds of up to 1,200 km/h, at heights of 10 km and requires large cells of up to 150 km,” said Thorsten Robrecht, VP of Vertical Network Slices at Nokia, an EAN partner.
The network won’t be officially launched until June, but the equipment is installed, and test flights have shown connection speeds of up to 75Mbps, crystal-clear FaceTime chats, and the ability to stream video services like Netflix.
The ground-plus-satellite network
It’s no secret that current onboard Wi-Fi systems struggle to keep up with data-heavy services like FaceTime and Netflix. That’s because these traditional onboard Wi-Fi systems are either satellite-based or ground-based. Both tactics have their challenges. Ground-based towers don’t provide coverage over water or remote areas. Satellite coverage can be slow and expensive.
EAN’s network combines the best of both: An Inmarsat S-band satellite and about 300 Deutsche Telekom ground-based towers equipped with LTE base stations. The two components work together to cover flights in the European Union, Switzerland, and Norway. Planes will carry onboard terminals that communicate with both satellite and ground equipment.
“We are disrupting the industry,” says David Fox, VP of Inflight Services & Connectivity for EAN partner Deutsche Telekom. “No one has been able to take the best of both worlds and create a product that combines the strength of the ground network with the coverage aspects of satellite.”
When to expect better Wi-Fi in the sky
The EAN network has already been deployed, but it will take a while for airlines to start using the service. Fox says that he anticipates that passengers are likely to start to notice faster onboard Wi-Fi on European flights this summer.
It is also up to individual airlines to decide how they use the network – and how much they charge for on-board Wi-Fi services. EAN’s first group of customers is the International Airlines Group, which includes British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, and Vueling. British Airways recently announced that they will offer the first hour free under sponsorship and then charge based on bandwidth.
Below: How ENA’s in-flight Wi-Fi infrastructure works