Mid-air connection: who needs wifi on a plane?

Am I the only one who doesn’t want internet access and mobile phones on planes? Is it not the last bastion of getting away from it all, short of heading off into the wilderness? Even my favourite camping spots have mobile phone coverage these days (although I have been known to be ‘out of range’ anyway) and I love getting on a plane to escape for a while.

Telstra this week revealed plans to provide 4G mobile broadband access for domestic flights, using dedicated ground transmitters to send signals to aircraft. The telco says it has been encouraged by the results of test flights on the Sydney-Melbourne route, but I’m less than thrilled by the news.

I understand that business travellers use their flying time to work, but you can get a lot done without the distractions of emails and phone calls. Then again, you could grab a drink, watch a movie and remember what life was like before we were constantly connected to an electronic device.

Airlines around the world are busy hunting down the fastest/best/newest internet and phone technology, but how many passengers want it? And how many passengers, especially younger generations, will be willing to pay for it?

I predict it will follow the path of wifi in hotels: something that people come to expect but don’t want to pay for. The best that most hotels can hope for these days is to charge for higher speed internet, for business travellers and others willing to pay, while giving away basic access for free.

Airlines have already lost the opportunity to hold firm on charging for internet, with at least one promoting free wifi as a selling point.

The cost of installing inflight internet and mobile phone connectivity is enormous and it will have to be paid for somehow. If the cost can’t be recouped from those who desperately want to check their emails or download a movie, we will all be paying through our fares.

The good news for those of us who like peace and quiet is that the rollout of these technologies is predicted to be slow by today’s standards.

The research firm IHS predicts only 50 per cent of commercial aircraft will have wireless connectivity by 2022.


About 4000 aircraft – or about 20 per cent of all commercial planes - are so far equipped with internet or mobile phone technology but nearly three quarters of these have wifi only.

Those offering both wifi and mobile phone access include Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines.

IHS says wifi connectivity is particularly widespread among North American airlines and its growth coincides with moves by the US authorities to loosen rules about using electronic devices on flights.

Travellers have traditionally been banned from using electronic devices during take-off and landing but the US Federal Aviation Administration determined in November that devices could be used throughout the flight.

A senior analyst for IHS, Heath Lockett, said late last year that the proportion of passengers actually connecting to wireless services on board aircraft was very low.

“The great challenge for airlines now is to inform passengers of the services they offer and get them to pay for access,” Lockett said.

Surveys overseas have found that many passengers would be willing to give up other amenities for a faster internet connection but a Fairfax poll in March suggested less enthusiasm here in Australia. 

For those who do want to be constantly connected, constantly developing technology means future inflight wifi is predicted to be not only very fast but also affordable.

I feel we’re losing one of our last chances to escape emails and other communication, but at least wifi access does not affect other passengers: Travellers can work, download movies, play games and watch mindless cat videos without interrupting anyone else.

Mobile phone technology is a different story; you only have to go on public transport to know how inane or offensive other people’s phone conversations can be.

The cost of making calls in the sky means most passengers will limit their usage to text messages until calls get cheaper but the constant beep-beep of messages coming in could wear very thin on a long flight.

Like everything else that involves lots of people crammed into a small space, it will come down to education and courtesy about appropriate uses of phones and other devices.

I’m just not sure, based on some of the behaviour we already see on planes, that we can rely on millions of passengers to show that sort of consideration.

Is having wifi access on a plane necessary? Do we really internet connectivity mid-air?