Can I Use Wi-Fi on a Plane?

3 min
a hand of a person holding a phone using wifi on a plane

Getting ready for a plane trip? And what are you going to do onboard? The airline recommends buying in-flight Internet access. A cautious netizen asks: is it safe to use airplane Wi-Fi? How does it even work? Let’s see!

Connectivity is almost everywhere

Alas, smartphones can’t work normally high in the air. They stay connected when close enough to one of your operator’s antennas. Those are mounted around us on masts and buildings. They are connected via optical fibers to operators’ centers, and through them – to the Internet. But in aviation, this cannot apply. At a standard altitude, your phone might detect a signal coming from the ground, but it will be far too weak to maintain a decent transfer. Moreover, a moving phone connects to the next closest beacon as it moves away from the previous one. Planes move so fast that this procedure would be very frequent, disrupting the connection even more.

However, in recent years, special antennas are getting mounted on selected planes. They supply passengers with mobile Internet, just like down on Earth. This is billed according to the roaming plan if your operator signed an agreement with the airline.

Still, many airlines oblige passengers to disconnect their devices throughout the flight, or at least during takeoff and landing. The reasoning behind this is the possibility of signal interference. Smartphones generate signals in a certain range of the radio spectrum. Standard aircrafts use similar frequencies to connect with air traffic control, so interference that might disrupt security procedures is possible. Safety is taken very seriously in aviation, because a severe failure may lead to multiple deaths. There were several cases of electronic devices messing with onboard communication. None has caused a disaster, though. Hence the debate around mobile phones onboard continues.

Many modern aircraft supply Wi-Fi onboard to make up for the lack of mobile networks. But how can it work, actually? And is it safe to use?

How can Wi-Fi be available onboard?

That’s not a simple question. How can a plane sustain a stable high-quality Internet connection? Well, it communicates with the ground anyway for guidance and security. But it’s not enough to supply over 100 people inside a large jet with decent Internet traffic. Flight control needs perfect reliability of the connection, not high speed. Separate techniques are necessary for passengers’ convenience. Some modern large commercial aircraft have two sets of receivers onboard. One connects with the ground stations and the other creates a satellite link. The latter is employed mainly in long-haul flights where there are no beacons nearby, mostly when traveling above seas. Inside the plane, an ordinary hotspot is available.

The technology required is intricate and costly, so the Wi-Fi service onboard is often charged extra. Better check in advance when buying your ticket whether it is available at all and at what cost. The overall bandwidth is limited by the capabilities of the long-distance wireless connection. That’s often unpredictable, as it depends on the stations half a world away, satellite availability, and the weather, just to name a few. Separate billing of this service makes many customers rather choose to read a book. All the better for those who stay online. Their devices compete for limited bandwidth.

Is airplane Wi-Fi safe?

It all comes down to this fundamental question. Many networks in public places come with a catch. Some demand that you share some information with them, like provide your email address or fill in a survey. Others limit the time spent online. Many providers gather users’ data for targeted advertising.

The basic principles of online safety remain unchanged, no matter whether on a plane or not. Don’t let any inconveniences distract you! Remember, your activities might be monitored by the Wi-Fi supplier. What jurisdiction does he fall into? How will your data be handled? Are the data protection laws the same as in your home country? You can hope for that if the flight is domestic, or the laws are international, like GDPR in the European Union. But there is a better solution, especially if you travel a lot.

You don’t need to worry about any insecurities in any Wi-Fi you use if you protect yourself in advance. A VPN service covers that, constructing a logical tunnel from your device to the provider’s server. It is virtually impenetrable to any prying eyes or hackers. It safeguards you from insecure local networks, untrustworthy fellow passengers, and the airplane’s Internet Service Provider. Although free VPNs are available, paid ones are generally more reliable. VPN subscribers don’t worry about local threats to their online safety, they just ‘enter the tunnel’ and surf with more ease.

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