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There are some moments where you have to sit back, look at the world unfolding around you, and realize that we are finally living in the future.
You can email someone an entire house and they can print it on-site using a 3D printer. You can wear a pair of glasses that effortlessly project the entire collected knowledge of the human race in front of your eyes without you so much as lifting a finger. You can even sit on a plane at 40,000 feet and catch up with your friends on Facebook.
In-flight Wi-Fi has become such an intrinsic part of the flight experience for so many in such a short period of time, we take it for granted. The fact that we harness such mind-blowing technology primarily in the pursuit of sharing photos of cats should not detract from the simple fact that it's an amazing time to be alive.
It has become the new standard amenity, but how does in-flight Wi-Fi work?
From the Ground Up
If you're talking about in-flight Wi-Fi, you have to start with Gogo, one of the leading providers of in-flight Wi-Fi. The company started, as all great things do, in a barbecue restaurant. Here founder Jimmy Ray first formulated the idea for airborne cellular communications to private planes. His company, Aircell, provided analogue voice communications both via cell towers and satellites. Aircell still exists as the company's business aviation division, but the rebranded Gogo took off when it was granted an exclusive FCC license in 2008 for 3G Air-to-Ground (ATG) transmission.
This ATG transmission of data (first in 3G and new rolling out into ATG-4 speeds) works essentially the same way as your cellular data works now, except for one surprisingly obvious difference. The transmission dishes on the cell towers leased by Gogo (more than 160 across the continental U.S., Alaska and soon Canada) point up, rather than down.
That data is beamed just like any other wireless data providers to specially equipped antennae on the bottom of the plane. (Pictured at left, courtesy of Wikipedia) From there, the data is routed to paying customers on board. This system is in place on nearly 2,000 planes from all the major carriers.
The 3G speeds mean that there can occasionally be issues connecting to bandwidth-chomping streaming services like YouTube. Speed tests on Gogo generally run around 1 Mbps but anecdotal stories have emerged of users getting speeds up to 3 Mbps using Gogo (typical in-home Wi-Fi runs from 10-30 Mbps).
It's a fairly ingenious system, but as anyone who has ever driven through the country can attest, those cell towers don't go everywhere. So what if you're outside the range of those 160 towers? What if you're over water?
Don't worry, this is the future. No stumbling block of geography can trip the march of cat photos to your device.
Look To the Skies
While Gogo was securing its platform across cell towers, another provider, Row 44, looked to the heavens.
In terms of major carriers, Row 44 has only locked down Southwest and a slew of regional carriers, but the satellite technology it uses reportedly delivers faster speeds, as much as 11 Mbps.
Row 44 leases satellite space from Hughesnet, beaming information to their satellites from a series of strategically placed ground earth stations. The signal is bounced off of the Hughesnet satellite to the awaiting RF-transparent radome of an aircraft, where all those cat photos are distributed via cable wireless LAN units mounted throughout the aircraft.
Diagram courtesy of Row 44
These satellites operate on the Ku band, a sliver of the entire spectrum of radio communications which for many years had been the standard for satellite transmission.
Brace yourself, it's about to get nerdy.
While Ku had been de riguer for satellite communications for years, there was always the possibility of getting faster speeds using Ka band communications. The hows and whys get entirely too complicated for this venue; suffice it to say it's like the difference between 3G and 4G. You don't know why it's faster, it just is.
The problem with Ka-band satellite transmission has always been a reduced reliability and greater susceptibility to things like clouds or other weather. New technologies have emerged, however, that mitigate those problems, making Ka band the hot new ticket.
"New Ka-band systems coming onto the market promise to deliver substantially greater throughput than current Ku-band offerings," wrote Chris Hudson, senior solutions architect for satellite provider Intelisat in a recent blog post. "This fact has led some in the industry to conclude that Ka-band capacity is a superior evolution of Ku-band capacity."
The Best of Both Worlds
AT IN-FLIGHT DATA
• By 2016, it is estimated that there will be more mobile devices on the planet than people to use them.
• That's 10 billion devices for 7.3 billion people.
• In-flight entertainment hardware expenditures are expected to rise to $2 billion in 2015.
• The number of aircraft equipped with passenger connectivity systems will double to more than 4,000 by 2016.
• Wireless in-flight entertainment is forecast to be on about a quarter of the global commercial fleet by 2018.
• More than 60 percent of U.s. passengers who used cabin Wi-fi are likely to use it again in the future.
• More than 40 percent of U.s. passengers who have flow in the past year have used the service.
SOURCE:Honeywell Satellite Communications[/BLURB][/CALLOUT]
Not to be outdone, Gogo is rolling out a hybrid satellite and ATG system alled Gogo Ground to Orbit (GTO).
Essentially, GTO uses both technologies so that it can separate the upload and download pipelines. By devoting the satellite feed, which is faster to begin with, simply to downloads, and by relegating less-important upload speeds to the ATG system, everything goes faster.
Picture it this way: let's say your friend sends you a funny photo (of, I don't know, a cat). This cat photo will go from your friend's device and travel through the many tubes of the Internet to a ground station leased by Gogo. The many 1s and 0s will be fired up to outer space to the awaiting reflective panels of a satellite, where it will bounce to a radome atop the airplane.
The plane's on-board routers will channel that cat photo to your laptop where you will no doubt chuckle (it's a very funny cat photo in this case). In fact, you'll get such a laugh that you'll decide you have to forward it on to your other friend.
Your device will fire that cat photo back to the routers, who will then send that kitty down to an antenna on the bottom of the plane. That antenna will launch your hilarious cat 40,000 feet down to an upturned dish atop a tower on the ground. That tower will pass the cat on to the cloud, and eventually to your friend's device.
In the course of its journey, that cat photo will have traveled thousands of miles, passing through some of the most advanced communications technology known to man.
And all so that you wouldn't have to wait for touchdown to pass on that cat photo.
Smile. You're living in the future.
TravelPulse contributor Barry Kaufman has been a writer and editor for 15 years and a travel junkie since birth. He lives by...
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