Qantas has today demonstrated their in-flight Wi-Fi system that lets you communicate with the outside world while travelling at 900km/hr and at 30,000 feet.
In fact this very story you are reading now was written on the test flight and filed while in the air. I could still be there now.
Today media and guests were invited to a one hour flight on a Boeing 737 aircraft — the only one fitted with Wi-Fi to date.
“Today you are travelling on a Wi-Fi enabled aircraft,” the flight attendant says as we entered the aircraft. She invited passengers to download the Netflix and Spotify apps before departure.
The system is currently in Beta-mode as testing is yet to be completed.
Qantas expects to complete that testing by mid year before installing the technology on its domestic fleet of Airbus 330s and Boeing 737s. The rollout to 80 aircraft is slated to be completed by the end of 2018.
I have travelled on Wi-Fi enabled planes in the US but it is understood this newer system aims to be several times faster than offered to US passengers and it will be offered free of charge. Qantas says the Wi-Fi system is 10 times faster than conventional on-board Wi-Fi.
There are limitations on its use however. Qantas will not be making it available for phone calls, so you won’t be able to use apps such as Skype or Viber to chat away during a flight.
You won’t too be able to make cellular calls or send SMSs across the cellular network because Wi-Fi is a data service. If the cellular network did connect to a ground station, it is a fluke.
While you can download and stream media, the system is not designed for uploading of video. I was told before the flight that a 15 second video where you say “Hi” to your friends and relatives on the ground may takes minutes to upload.
But it aims to offer bread and butter internet functionality such as web browsing and interacting with websites, social media activity such as posting to Facebook and tweeting, sending emails and photo attachments, such as selfies, and using cloud services. I am testing these during the flight.
Passengers on the special flight that I am on include Dr Terry Percival, one of the original CSIRO team that invented Wi-Fi. It is a proud Australian invention.
The real time internet connectivity aboard has other spin-offs. For a start, Qantas pilots and cabin crew can now log into real time weather and navigation information. Cabin crew will be able to manage onward bookings more effectively in the air.
Crew will also be able to better manage medical issues and have access to online support as well as any expertise aboard. They’ll be able to use instruments to take readings of an ill passenger’s vital signs and send it to medical staff on the ground. Qantas expects it will be able to reduce medical diversions as well.
Qantas says that during this trial period up to 15,000 passengers will get to experience the Wi-Fi, with 15 million passengers using it in the first full year of operation.
The Wi-Fi connectivity technology is satellite based and can only work over the Australian continent. There is a steerable antenna on the plane that communicates with one of the two NBN SkyMuster satellites that also provide services to regional and rural Australia.
Dr Percival told The Australian that the satellite had a series of “spot beams” — a beam for data streaming to and fro the satellite and NBN ground stations. Each ground station can control about 10 beams.
From there, data can filter back and forth to the internet.
There are some complex technical issues that had to be thrashed out such as dealing with the Doppler effect. The wavelength of transmissions between moving objects gets distaughted and this has to be corrected, ViaSat provided Qantas with connectivity between the aircraft, NBN’s SkyMuster satellites and the ground stations.
However Qantas says the SkyMuster satellite prioritises internet demand on the ground over the air.
If you are reading this story, it is filed from way up in the air.
I’m back on the ground, so how did it go? Well, it’s not super fast but some of the more basic internet functionality worked well;
* I could read and post on Facebook, and Twitter without any dramas, and take and upload selfie photos. No problems;
* Email worked well, but if your email client first needs to sync your inbox, it can take time to load. It’s best to sync the apps and sites you are going to use while on the ground beforehand;
* Web browsing was fine but not fast. Expect websites with lots of embedded media, advertising and other functionality to take time to load;
* I loaded and watched part of an episode of Netflix’s “The Crown” without problems. Streaming worked well and I could even skip to another section of the episode without waiting too long. Qantas says Foxtel, Stan and Spotify also are coming aboard;
* However I personally think that using this bandwidth to watch streaming services from the ground is a waste of satellite resources desperately needed on the ground. Airlines already have great entertainment systems and with Netflix you can download shows and store them on your laptop before you come aboard. The emphasis should be communications.
* I could login to cloud services, create and modofy documents and file them. I accessed files from Apple iCloud, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive and wrote a document using Microsoft Word in the cloud. This is great news for businesses that want to share documents with staff who are in the air;
* I agree with Qantas’s move to heavily discoverage or even disable usage of Skype, Viber and other data telephony services as this will disturb other passengers. Many would hate the intrusion. I used Facebook Messages on the flight so you can communicate with people on the ground in real time with text and email;
* Don’t expect much uploading capability beyond documents, social media posts and photos. A Speedtest reading of 10.19 Mbps download speed and 0.58 Mbps upload speed tells the story. I shot a 17 second video and it took around 4 minutes to upload. So keep videos very short. Your verbatim video rendition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace shot in the plane isn’t going to make it to the ground before you land;
* On today’s flight there were about 100 journalists and various other officials; many of used multiple devices. That’s not a bad test but it might not match what is experienced in real passenger situations.
* I made the observation (reported by others) that Wi-Fi on the plane was better than the free Qantas Wi-Fi at Qantas’s domestic terminal. That’s true, in part because the Wi-Fi at terminal 3 in Sydney was incredibly slow. I had trouble even downloading documents. It reminds me of the old saying — Aim for the stars but keep your feet on the ground. Qantas needs to take a look at this.
Reader comments on this site are moderated before publication to promote lively and civil debate. We encourage your comments but submitting one does not guarantee publication. We publish hundreds of comments daily, and if a comment is rejected it is likely because it does not meet with our comment guidelines, which you can read here. No correspondence will be entered into if a comment is declined.