Inflight WiFi (Credit: Flickr/Anthony Quintano CC BY 2.0)
Inflight WiFi (Credit: Flickr/Anthony Quintano CC BY 2.0)

These days, it feels like WiFi is pretty much everywhere. From coffeeshops to bars to parks, and, soon, even payphone booths, the Internet often feels ubiquitous.

That is, unless you’re flying.

Inflight WiFi is one of biggest opportunities and challenges in flying today. Frequent fliers are willing to pay up to $50 per month for Internet access on a flight, but connectivity speeds rival a dial-up connection. Companies, such as Chicago’s Gogo, are trying to improve that, but without much success.

With that in mind, a Northwestern professor is on a mission to understand why inflight WiFi is so terrible, and help passengers better gauge their WiFi experience once on a flight.

Fabián Bustamante, a professor at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, studies the interaction between flights and Internet connection, and his team of researchers recently developed an app called WiFly. Passengers put their flight number in the app once they’ve purchased inflight WiFi, and the app will show connectivity speed across the duration of the trip, plus contribute data to research that could improve the speed of WiFi on planes.

In their research through WiFly thus far, Bustamante and his team found that most inflight WiFi connections run at about the same speed as dial-up connections–it can take 30 to 35 seconds to load one web page.

“Flying presents one of the most challenging conditions for continuous WiFi activity because the flights are six miles in the air,” he said to McCormick. “They are moving at 500 to 600 miles per hour. From a network perspective, that’s incredibly challenging.”

Here’s a little more on how that works, via McCormick:

Typical inflight WiFi configurations include multiple WiFi access points connected to an onboard server, which is linked to the ground via satellite or cell towers. Both options require the signal to travel over great distances before bouncing back to mobile devices on the airplane. When cell towers are not nearby — such as when flying over an ocean — connectivity is even worse, if not impossible.

Bustamante and his team presented their work so far at the International Workshop on Mobile Computing Systems and Applications in St. Augustine, Fla.

It’s likely that between research and the commercial potential of quality inflight wifi, quality airplane wifi is in our future. Gogo just announced it signed a contract with satellite provider SES to gain access to two high powered satellites launching in 2017.

Image credit: Flickr/Anthony Quintano CC BY 2.0