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Finally, an Effort to Make Inflight Wi-Fi Less Awful

Seamless Air Alliance is creating the first standard aimed at improving airplane connectivity

3 min read
Wifi symbol with multiple airplanes flying inside
Illustration: iStockphoto

Inflight Wi-Fi is terrible.

To be fair, the fact that we can connect to the Internet at all while we’re screaming across the sky at hundreds of kilometers an hour in a metal tube is pretty incredible. But still, the quality of that Internet connection often leaves something to be desired.

Jack Mandala, the CEO of the industry group Seamless Air Alliance, credits the generally poor inflight Wi-Fi experience in part to the fact that there have never been industry-wide standards developed for the technology. “With regard to inflight connectivity, it’s largely just been proprietary equipment,” he says.

Mandala explains that historically, airlines have been responsible for providing their own inflight wireless service. Practically speaking, that means airlines go to one of a handful of companies that specialize in building this wireless equipment and have systems custom-designed for their fleet, to the tune of roughly US $600,000 or $700,000 per plane. These wireless systems are not just for passenger Wi-Fi, they’re also responsible for the rest of the pilots’ and plane’s communications with the ground.

The upshot is that each airline typically ends up locked into a proprietary wireless system that only works with the specific vendor that built it. The situation makes it difficult for an airline to adapt or upgrade its system in response to the latest tech—such as the growing number of low Earth orbit satellites that could offer a colossal amount of new wireless backhaul.

Seamless Air Alliance’s goal was to sit down and develop a standard for inflight Wi-Fi. Mandala says the effort, initially pushed for by the airlines themselves, took a lot of inspiration from the standards efforts done by the mobile industry (3GPP, for example, is the industry group defining the standards for 5G cellular).

Mandala says the biggest challenge in establishing the standards wasn’t anything technical, per se, but rather how granular they could get in establishing subsystems without infringing on companies’ proprietary technologies. In the end, he says, the standard defines eight subsystems, so that an airline can mix and match components and still expect a functional wireless system. Mandala declined to name the subsystems—he says they haven’t been announced yet but will be in the final standards release.

The hope is that giving airlines standardized components that they can flexibly swap into and out of the crafts in their fleets, the airlines will be better positioned to respond to changes in communications technology.

For example, a plane’s antennas are currently stored in a relatively small hump on the top of the craft, typically about 45 centimeters high. Even though it’s so small, that hump causes tremendous amounts of wasted jet fuel, Mandala says, causing an estimated minimum of an extra $75,000 per aircraft per year in fuel costs.

New flat top antennas are being rolled out to replace the need for a communications hub that juts out of the plane. But it will be easier for airlines to integrate these new antennas into their systems with defined standards that guide how they can be integrated into the rest of their tech.

A standard for inflight Wi-Fi won’t directly impact your wireless experience in the near future. Seamless Air Alliance is currently putting together a test program for the standards, and expects to announce the full test plan in the next six months. It will take another year or two, Mandala estimates, to actually see these open, standardized systems on aircraft. But he believes the benefits will be worth the wait. Someday, using inflight Wi-Fi could be “like connecting to your home Wi-Fi,” he says. “That’s the experience we want to deliver.”

This post was updated on 2 March 2020. 

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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