Tales From the Long Haul

Wi-Fi on International Flights Is Just Starting to Take Off

Bloomberg's Willem Marx visits Row 44, one of the major providers of in-flight wifi, to find out what it takes to broadcast a signal around the globe.

American frequent flyers have come to expect in-flight Wi-Fi when traveling domestically, but staying connected on overseas trips remains more elusive. While 38 percent of domestic planes have Wi-Fi, barely more than three dozen daily international flights offer Internet service during the full trip, according to a study released this month by flight-search website Routehappy.

Gogo, the largest U.S. in-flight Internet provider, typically requires planes to communicate with antenna towers on the ground. That model successfully carried the company to its initial public offering last month, but the method fails when flying over thousands of miles of water. That's why Gogo has been working with Delta Air Lines to add satellite service to more than 150 long-haul aircrafts.

For a sense of the technical challenges facing in-flight deployment for overseas travel, watch the video at the top of this post. Bloomberg Television toured the 1940s seaplane used by Row 44 to test the company's satellite-based Wi-Fi service. It's equipped with a powerful antenna that must rotate every few milliseconds.

"We're trying to point at a satellite that's stationary over the equator around about 22,000 miles away," Simon McLellan, a senior engineer at Row 44, told Bloomberg TV. "It takes you many hours of testing in a real environment to get those calculations right."

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All so that we can check Facebook at 30,000 feet.

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