Earlier this year I flew with Emirates to Thailand, we got a fantastic black friday deal, around £330 each return, over the Easter bank holiday. Thailand is a fascinating country and I took lots of photos and put a few on 500px.
For a lot of people, they are connected to the internet constantly, be it looking at cat pictures on Reddit, keeping in touch with friends & family or simply checking their email.
On the ground this is quite easy, 4G and Wi-Fi are almost ubiquitous now, with every major town/city having 4G coverage and your favourite fast food outlets having free Wi-Fi - unless, like me you live in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal.
Up in the air it's a different story completely, it's not easy to attach a fiber optic cable to a moving object so the airlines must find alternative solutions.
These come in the form of either Satellite or ATG (Air to Ground) links, sometimes a mixture of both - the latter is the preferred method but isn't practical over the ocean. Unfortunately these have very low bandwidth and cost a lot of money for airlines to install and operate (aside from the equipment cost, think extra weight, which means more fuel, which means less paying passengers)
Additionally because they are wireless solutions this introduces a lot of latency which in turn slows down your browsing experience.
Most airlines that install Wi-Fi on their aircraft have very expensive pricing, and can get away with it because you don't have an alternative- your phone is in airplane mode, right?
The pricing of in-flight Wi-Fi is the problem in my opinion, if you set it too high you'll get too few people using it, but those that do will have a somewhat decent experience.
On the other hand, if you set it too low you'll get too many people using it resulting in a virtual standstill for the passengers' browsing experience.
However it is possible to get it just right...
As I was going to be taking two medium haul flights (UK to Dubai is around 7 hours and then to Bangkok is another 6) I thought about Wi-Fi availability on-board and was surprised to find the modest pricing:
This is a great pricing strategy for a couple of reasons:
First, it handles demand quite well. It means everyone can at least check Facebook or their email briefly, while cruising at 37,000 ft but it doesn't get overloaded with people trying to stream Netflix or YouTube. Of course, you can buy more data for $1 USD but the speed isn't consistent enough for high bandwidth tasks like those.
Naturally at the start of the flight (and when there is announcement saying Wi-Fi is available) there is a sudden rush of connections which slows it down for everyone. A tip would be to wait until half way into your flight (or around two hours in, as the free period should have expired for most passengers) you might get a better experience.
The second reason, it's affordable. You don't want to have to take out a second mortgage just to catch up with your friends while travelling, like is the case with roaming charges if not careful. At $1 USD per 500MB of data that's very affordable. I'd go as far as to say it's too cheap, I mentioned before it handles demand, yes it does, but it isn't perfect.
I ran multiple speed tests and got respectable results for the situation (an aircraft travelling at over 500mph, high above the clouds and with over 500 passengers on-board) I don't have the test result to hand but it was around 2-4 mbit download and 0.5-1 mbit upload with an astronomical ping of more than 2000ms or 2 seconds! This is understandable given the circumstances and that you are potentially being routed through a satellite in space.
If you're trying to stream video or play multiplayer video games (that aren't scrabble) on a plane, then nice try, but you're doing it wrong. It's not built for that, at least in most parts of the world. Air to Ground links provide much more bandwidth for the aircraft but isn't widely deployed outside of the United States.
The service does have it's other problems that aren't entirely technical limitations. There are some countries which when overflying the service is disabled - India is a notable example.
For all it's faults I can forgive Emirates, they could have been like a lot of other airlines and charged a small fortune for even a small amount of data, or like a lot more airlines and not have invested in Wi-Fi at all. They don't appear to be out to make a profit too, which would be difficult to achieve but commendable nonetheless.
Here is a quote from the linked press release, Sir Tim Clark, President Emirates Airline:
It is a fact that our customers want onboard connectivity, and this demand is only going to increase... We’ve always viewed Wi-Fi as a service and a value-added part of Emirates’ overall product, rather than a revenue stream
If we can offer good quality Wi-Fi connections for everyone onboard at no charge tomorrow, we will do it. But we face a slew of technical limitations - from speed and bandwidth availability and cost... Ultimately, we believe that onboard Wi-Fi will become a free service, and a standard that customers will expect on a full service airline
Sadly, as of June 14th 2017, Emirates have changed their pricing and now at much similar levels with the rest of the industry. If, however you are a member of their frequent flyer program, Skywards you get free or reduced prices depending on the cabin you're in. There is still some free access for everyone though - 20MB for 2 hours from activation.
Emirates have stated they don't want to profit off the wi-fi service (and they don't) it's about managing demand to provide a usable experience for all passengers. Remember, their A380's often carry 500-600 passengers, that's a lot.
I have a feeling part of the problem is that the on-board cellular service shares bandwidth with the Wi-Fi (in it's up-link to satellite) which would mean devices automatically connecting and using bandwidth in the background (as the phone treats it like any normal roaming network, no user interaction needed like on the Wi-Fi) however, I don't know the details so might be wrong.
I really hope the technology can advance in the coming years to enable the old pricing to make a return.
This is disappointing but demonstrates that it was a victim of it's own success. Quite ironic really.