Airplane WiFi: Are we there yet?

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Since the very first installation of airplane WiFi in 2006, speeds, accessibility, and price have all gotten better, but it’s still no secret that airplane WiFi is just plain bad.  Since I am traveling this week, I decided to test the internet and see how bad it really is.

This article will be a bit like a science experiment.  I’ll explain my hypothesis, the tests I’ll be running, their results, and finally, my conclusion.  I am currently on my JetBlue flight from Boston to Ft Lauderdale (I am typing into Google Docs, so at least that’s working!) and drinking my Ocean Spray No Sugar Added apple juice, which can mean only one thing: It’s time to get testing.

Hypothesis:

From what I’ve seen and heard about airplane WiFi in the past, I’m really not expecting too much.  If websites load quickly and Youtube can play at 240p, I’ll probably be satisfied.  That said, however, I hope to get at least 480p streaming and fast loading of websites.

Procedure:

To see if Airplane WiFi really lives up to the hype, I’ll conduct numerous tests designed to show just how well Airplane WiFi stacks up to my WiFi at home (which is admittedly faster than 95% of the US).  These tests are:

  • Speedtest using speedtest.net: Speedtest will determine exact ping, download, and upload speeds
  • Loading web pages: I won’t analyze exactly how long sites take to load, but if I am generally satisfied, the connection will pass my test
  • Watching YouTube: I’ll see what quality I can watch at without buffering
  • Google Hangouts video call: Alex and I will do a video call to see what resolution we will be able to talk at
  • Uploading an NAI video

Test Results:

At home, on Speedtest, I regularly get a ping of 1 to 7 ms, download speed of 80Mbps, and upload speed of 80Mbps.  On the plane, I got a ping speed of 737 ms (yuck), download speed of 16.83Mbps and 3.69Mbps on a second test (pretty respectable), and an upload speed of 0.44Mbps (not pretty respectable).  This makes sense, since download speed matters most to the average Netflix watcher.

Web pages always load extremely fast on my home WiFi.  On the plane, this is no different.  Pages load quickly and images load faster than I expected.  While speeds are certainly slower than at home, they are absolutely respectable for 40,000 feet in the air.  I could browse my favorite sites easily, and I didn’t feel bogged down by the speed.

Moving on to YouTube, at home I can stream at 1080p without a hitch, but my CPU ends up being the bottleneck that doesn’t let me stream 4k or even 1440p without buffering.  However, on my flight, I could only stream YouTube at 144p, and even still, buffering happens occasionally. This is disappointing since to almost everyone this quality is unusable.  In addition, I tried watching the Spacex live broadcast from my seat which buffered continuously and only ever worked for a few seconds at a time, regardless of quality settings.

My next test was a video calling test, in which I called Alex from the sky.  At home, we can talk with HD video streaming, and as far as we could both tell, the video feed looked great on either end.  There was some latency, but overall, we carried out a fine conversation.  It may not have been hd, but that didn’t matter, since we could always see and understand each other.  Great job, in-flight WiFi!

The last test is a video uploading test.  At home, I can upload an NAI video in about three minutes (about 400 mb).  On the plane, YouTube claimed it would take about two hours to upload the file.  While this certainly is annoying, it’s not the end of the world.  Most people don’t upload anything on a plane, let alone a YouTube video, so this is fine.

Conclusion:

After running these numerous tests, I have to say that I am a bit disappointed.  I had really hoped that services like YouTube and Netflix would stream better, but I was sad to see that they didn’t.  In addition, the ping and upload speeds are not on par, which to me, was quite annoying.

For most consumers, however, I think these gripes don’t matter.  Most people just want to watch their social media feeds and surf the web, and for these activities, Airplane WiFi is completely sufficient.  In addition, it is important to acknowledge the impressive feat that airplane WiFi exists at all.  It was only fifteen years ago that most people had just dial-up connections, so for broadband internet to be available literally anywhere is pretty impressive to me.

This wraps up my testing.  The WiFi was nothing amazing, but that’s what I expected.  This service was free on my flight, which is always appreciated, and all I really wanted to do was write and surf.  So while airplane WiFi isn’t amazing, I think we certainly are one step closer to our destination.

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Zachary Sherman

Since I was a small child, everything tech has interested me. A few years ago, I started watching tech YouTube and after putting two and two together and meeting Alex, we started creating New and Improved.

One thought on “Airplane WiFi: Are we there yet?

  • March 7, 2017 at 8:53 am
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    Hey Zach.
    When I flew on JetBlue recently (BOS)-(RSW) and back, I used the free WiFi to get consistent 720p streams from Tvrill.com
    I think that you may have been unlucky whilst doing your speed test as well as the fact that they may have throttling on poupular media sites (so not tvrill!).

    Reply

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