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On a recent flight to Las Vegas I was overwhelmed with advertisements offering Wi-Fi onboard the aircraft. While purchasing my ticket I encountered a pop-up box informing me that “this aircraft is Wi-Fi equipped”, followed by a link to purchase the service?

Brian Wilson  |  14th April 2014
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Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson

Brian has more than 40 years’ experience in the aviation field, and currently he is the Director of Key...

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Wi-Fi is changing the way we fly

On a recent flight to Las Vegas I was overwhelmed with advertisements offering Wi-Fi onboard the aircraft. While purchasing my ticket I encountered a pop-up box informing me that “this aircraft is Wi-Fi equipped”, followed by a link to purchase the service?

Standing in the boarding area, the gate agent announced the Wi-Fi service several times and as I entered the cabin door there was a Wi-Fi decal on the fuselage. Arriving at my seat, I found a Wi-Fi brochure in the seat pocket, and while the stewardess repeated her normal repertoire, she augmented her ritual by reminding passengers that the aircraft was Wi-Fi equipped.

The final and most intrusive reminder shocked me a bit; located right next to the standard illuminated icon of the no smoking and fasten your seatbelts signs was a Wi-Fi symbol. I pondered whether to read the safety briefing or purchase this Wi-Fi service because it must be very important to have during this flight!

Having Wi-Fi on board a commercial airliner or corporate jet is nothing new, of course; but the renewed interest and fascination to offer such services has grabbed the industry by storm. Charter companies market their fleets as Wi-Fi equipped and aircraft brokers advertise the same to gain a competitive advantage. I assume of this readership a basic understanding of how a Wireless Access Point (WAP) operates, and what it provides. But beyond the basics, a WAP provides much more than a “connection” for which Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) can access their email or surf the Internet. Having a WAP onboard is changing the game for both the flight crew and the passengers.

This article will break down the different areas of the aircraft to give you a better understanding of how having a WAP onboard makes life easier for everyone.

In its simplest form a WAP onboard an aircraft is no different than someone going down to Starbucks, ordering their favorite Latte and logging their PED on to the Starbucks ‘hotspot’. The basic technology is the same; there is access to the Internet, which is then connected to a router, which then communicates to your PED via a WAP. The difference starts when explaining how the internet gets to the aircraft as opposed to your home.

In your home or business the internet enters through the existing phone and/or cable (TV) infrastructure. Cabling is then run from room to room and you connect your computer to the network by plugging an Ethernet line into the Local Area Network (LAN) jacks. To create a wireless hotspot you simply plug a WAP to a jack and your family or colleagues can use their PEDs.

There are some similarities with how an aircraft gets its internet where the place of business or domicile is remotely located and you have to use a ‘dish’ that is strategically positioned on your home or building. The internet is then ‘piped’ in via a network of Satellites hovering over the earth and that are strategically positioned for maximum coverage. In most cases that is how an aircraft - both airline and corporate - receives internet. An antenna is mounted on top of the aircraft that communicates with a Satellite and sends the information to a router which then connects to a WAP. So a passenger onboard an aircraft would access the internet in the same way they do at Starbucks.

The technology that makes this happen in an aircraft traveling 560 MPH at an altitude of 37,000 feet makes this truly amazing, but is entirely invisible to the passenger who simply puts their PED on airplane-mode, thus activating the Wi-Fi function, connecting to the service, and enabling email and internet browsing just as would be available on the ground.


Wi-Fi in the Cabin
Wi-Fi was first introduced into the Cabin when traditional Satellite voice communications known as “SatCom” transitioned from being voice-only to include data services. The first installations required passengers to plug their laptops into LAN jacks which then connected them to a router. What started the interest in wireless communications was the introduction of the first Wi-Fi enabled smartphone with email capability. The immense popularity with the new smartphone led to an explosion of new devices that offered wireless communications.

The public was then exposed to Wi-Fi hotspots which evolved in both the retail and communal areas. The public’s fascination to always have access to their email and the internet while on-the-go launched a whole new paradigm of how we communicate.

Passengers flying on corporate jets naturally wanted the same freedom to roam the cabin or change seats without having to plug into a jack. Most PEDs didn’t allow for any type of physical connection which created an opportunity for companies to design the first Wi-Fi enabled routers for aviation. Originally designed to allow access to email and web-browsing using PEDs; Wi-Fi; and make available many applications, this has evolved into an array of additional functionality including:

Control of the Cabin Lighting;
Setting the Cabin Air Temperature;
Selection and control of the In Flight Entertainment (IFE);
Online shopping;
Streaming of Movies;
Streaming of Moving Maps;
Stream and share content stored on your PED;
Wireless Handsets;
VOIP voice calling.

Streaming content to a PED is another technology the public has been exposed to and it’s only natural that passengers will want the same experience when they are flying. Streaming movies, sporting events and television shows to a PED via a wireless service is quite common, whether you are in a home, a business or just walking through the park - but in an aircraft there are limitations.

This starts with the data speed access onboard the aircraft (versus what you get at your home or office). Most people are familiar with the leading online video streaming companies where you sign up for a monthly rate and have access to unlimited movies. These companies allow you to “stream” the data over the internet to view either on a standard TV, computer or PED device; hence, the content is technically stored “in the cloud”. Airliners and large-sized corporate aircraft that can afford to purchase a Ku-Band internet service will have some level of ‘cloud’ content access, but for the vast majority of corporate aircraft using the popular SwiftBroadband (SBB) or Air-to-Ground service, the speed of the connection will prohibit any downloading of movies. (I am not saying it’s impossible to do, it’s just not cost-effective.)

On the other hand, the wireless device onboard an aircraft is technically the same as the one used at the home or office. The new 802.11(n) Wi-Fi models are capable of handling up to 600Mb/s of bandwidth which allows for streaming HD quality shows and movies. Audio Video on Demand (AVOD) media storage units are an excellent, cost-effective solution for onboard entertainment systems. These media devices store the content and stream them to your PED as though you were on the ground. Having the content stored onboard the aircraft eliminates the deficiency in the data-rates and precludes a nasty surprise in your monthly bill because a passenger tried to download a movie.

Wi-Fi enabled smartphones and handsets allow Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) calls to be made to and from the aircraft. The ability to make a voice call using the bandwidth available over the internet connection gives you the advantage of saving money if you plan your next upgrade correctly.

Let’s imagine you have a Gulfstream GIV with the standard Magnastar phone system: although a reliable voice and fax solution, it has many limitations and its end-of-life cycle is fast approaching… Your company has a maintenance inspection coming up soon and the goal is to upgrade the cabin for connectivity. By installing a hybrid system that provides both connectivity and VOIP calling you can eliminate the existing voice-only system. Now your passengers can roam around the cabin with their portable handsets instead of being attached to a retractable reel. Additionally, by selecting the right service provider, all your voice and data charges will be on one bill.


Cockpit and Crew
In 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved the use of the Apple iPad tablet in the cockpit. Airliners and Charter companies followed with requests to replace the current bulky and heavy flight bags with the paperless tablets. Although many operators use flight applications that can be updated with a touch of the icon and don’t necessarily require Wi-Fi; flight crews can gain a wealth of information to help increase situation awareness and safety while in flight.

A good example would be the weather: Although many of the larger airframes have the technology to allow the crew to view the weather while in flight; the majority of the small to mid-sized aircraft don’t have that capability. Even those aircraft outfitted with the technology are limited by the size and detail of the displays in the cockpit. Any pilot will tell you that most cockpit displays take a back-seat to tablets when it comes to resolution, brightness and viewing angle. Now aircraft of all sizes can view the current weather and other flight critical data utilizing a tablet, application, Wi-Fi and an internet connection. In the case where weather prohibits the crew from reaching their scheduled airport, they can use the internet to assist them on which FBO to use, based on services and fuel prices.

Most pilots and technicians can remember the days when they had to take upwards of an hour to load five or six floppy disks into their Flight Management System (FMS) every 28 days in order to update the Database. How about situations where your aircraft was on an extended trip, far from the home base, and the crew is reporting the FMS and IFIS databases are soon overdue along with a re-occurring intermittent problem with the Avionics!

In the past this could be a very frustrating time for both the crew and the maintenance personnel. Imagine the convenience of knowing that once the aircraft is on the ground, an onboard device makes a secure connection to a Wi-Fi network and automatically transfers all the information. The crew and technician even receive an email or text message that the content was successfully installed onto the aircraft.

The possibilities are endless to where this new technology can take today’s modern aircraft. Envision the case where the onboard systems are working normally and the crew see no anomalies in the cockpit; but the Maintenance Diagnostic Computer (MDC) sent a message via the Wi-Fi network that a computer is starting to malfunction. The message could be routed to the manufacturer’s technical operations department who concur a fault is imminent. An email could then be sent to the crew and the home-base identifying the problem with a corrective action plan attached. Parts could be ordered and shipped to the aircraft’s next destination before it even arrives. That would be customer service!


The Wi-Fi Roadmap
Given the information outlined above you can start to picture what lies ahead for all the players in our industry. Staying connected has made the transition from email and web browsing, to maintenance diagnostics and database upgrades.

Fixed Based Operators will have to enhance their Wi-Fi systems with both bandwidth and security measures to entice aircraft operators to use their facilities over the competitor.
Charter companies will outfit their fleets with Wi-Fi networks so passengers can get email and internet access giving them a competitive advantage.
Avionics, Maintenance and Engine manufacturers will design their equipment to communicate with onboard routers and terminals so their systems can be monitored at all times.
Aircraft OEMs will certify their new aircraft to be Wi-Fi compliant; external antenna’s will transmit and receive information via a wireless network.
New job titles and positions will be created to monitor, decode and transfer information sent over the network.
Information technology (IT) specialists and consultants will be needed to ensure proper encryption is used preventing the network from being hacked into.
Technical schools will change their curriculum to include IT training, and more troubleshooting will be done remotely over the Wi-Fi network.

One thing is certain moving forwards. Wi-Fi is here to stay. It is the central nervous system of In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity (IFEC) and its relationship with other onboard systems continues to grow. Ground-based operations will have to adapt so that they, too, can “stay connected”.


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