In-flight entertainment for the Netflix generation: Soon you'll be able to stream video at 30,000 feet

The days of getting on a plane, switching off your phone and your laptop, and checking out for a few hours could soon be over.
Who needs an in-flight entertainment system when you can log into Netflix on your iPad?
Every aeroplane in the world will be able to offer high-speed in-flight broadband within five years, allowing passengers to browse the web, send emails, and stream music and films at 30,000 feet.

The forecast has been made by Don Buchman, vice president of commercial mobility at broadband satellite operator ViaSat.

He claims that high-capacity satellites will beam internet connectivity over large areas of the planet, allowing planes to pick up a signal wherever they are.

Wait, can't you already get WiFi on planes?

Around 60% to 70% of aircraft in the US – and 10% to 20% of aircraft in the rest of the world – already offer access to some sort of in-flight WiFi.

But the speed and quality of these connections is typically equivalent a dial-up modem connection, and nowhere near what people would consider “real” broadband.
High-speed WiFi means you could stream your favourite films and TV shows on the plane
“They can’t do the things they normally would like to do, like sending emails, downloading files, watching videos, streaming videos, listening to audio – all those sort of things,” said Buchman.

“So if you’re not connected to a high-quality network, we say you’re really not connected – because just doing text messaging is probably not what anyone would consider broadband WiFi.”

How is this any better?

The reason that current in-flight broadband is so rubbish is because it relies on satellites with around 1Gbps of capacity.

The satellite operated by ViaSat has 140Gbps of capacity, offering connection speeds and bandwidth similar to what passengers receive at home.
Rendering of ViaSat's satellite in space
We didn’t think that just being connected was OK. We really thought being connected at a high-quality connection was what really was important,” said Buchman.

“One of the things we did with our satellites was we invested in technology that provided the highest capacity at the best economics – so it's available at a cost that is reasonable for people to use it.”

Who will pay?

There are several different possible business models, and it's really up to the airline to decide whether to charge passengers, or absorb the cost of providing in-flight WiFi themselves.

Passengers could either be charged on an opt-in basis, or by incorporating the cost of the service into the price of their tickets.

However, Buchman claims that some third parties may be willing to “sponsor” the service on some airlines, in order to get their products in front of new customers.

Netflix and Amazon already sponsor in-flight WiFi on some airlines in the United States, in the hope that it “surprise and delight” existing customers and help to attract new ones.

Is it just about in-flight entertainment?

Video streaming is just the beginning. ViaSat claims that in-flight WiFi will also transform the duty free experience, allowing passengers to order from their phones and tablets and arrange for items to be delivered straight their homes.

They could also place orders for snacks and refreshments and specify when they want to receive them, rather than having to wait for a trolley to come around the cabin.

Passengers could even make last-minute travel arrangements, such as booking a flight at the last second, arranging an Uber collection, reading TripAdvisor articles and even crowdsourcing other tourists to meet up with en route to their destination.
It's not just about in-flight entertainment. WiFi opens up a whole range of possibilities

When will I be able to get it?

The ViaSat 1 satellite only covers continental United States and parts of Canada, so the service is currently limited to these areas.

ViaSat has a roaming agreement with French-based satellite operator EutelSat, which means it can also theoretically offer its service in Europe, and parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Later this year, Israeli airline El Al is launching a broadband service using Eutelsat's satellite, so WiFi will be available on flights from Tel Aviv to various major cities in Europe.

ViaSat has plans to launch ViaSat 2 next year. This will cover large parts of North America and – crucially – the flight paths between the US and Europe.

ViaSat 3, which is actually three satellites, will launch in 2019. Buchman claims that, by 2021, the company will have the entire “visible earth footprint” covered, (everywhere except the North and South poles).
Graphic showing the coverage of ViaSat's different satellites
However, ViaSat isn't the only company in the broadband space race, so we could get high-speed in-flight broadband even sooner.

But flying is my chance to switch off...

Many people regard flying as their “last refuge” away from the world, offering a legitimate excuse to switch off and ignore work emails for a while. So why would you want to spoil that?

Buchman admits there is part of the population that doesn’t want to be connected on aeroplanes, but believes there are also a lot of people who get really anxious about being disconnected.

“Before you had to turn your phone off for take-off and landing, and as soon as that little 'ding ding' went off when the plane landed, everyone would reach in their pocket, grab their device, turn in on and start interacting with it,” he said.

“So it tells you people want to be connected, they were just limited in their ability to do it – either in the lack of a connection, or the cost of the connection, or the quality of the connection. So our mission is to remove those three barriers and then we’ll let the actual demand take hold.”

He added that planes may end up like trains – with some “quiet” areas and other areas where you can use your devices and talk on the phone.

original aricle