Flights used to be an opportunity to relax (albeit a bit tight) and watch a recently released movie or catch up on some reading. Now they’re just another place to log in.

Delta and United each host more than 1.5 million inflight Wi-Fi sessions per month, the airlines told CNN Business, while JetBlue said its service is used by “millions of customers” each year. Southwest declined to share specific numbers, but said inflight Wi-Fi is “popular.”

Alaska Airlines, for its part, estimates that about 35% of its passengers on average use its $8 inflight WiFi services that include surfing the web and streaming.

While most airlines will allow certain messaging apps for free, full internet access in the skies usually comes at a premium; Delta charges nearly $50 for a monthly pass on US flights (although the airline plans to switch to a $5 per flight per device deal later this year). But with a market currently estimated at around $5 billion and projected to grow to more than $12 billion by 2030, according to research firm Verified Market Research, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The internet on board has been around for almost two decades. Aircraft maker Boeing announced its service, known as Connexion, in April 2000 and debuted it on a Lufthansa Munich-Los Angeles flight in 2004. Boeing discontinued the service in 2006, saying the market had “not materialized” as Was expected. But the advent of smartphones and subsequent efforts by a host of satellite providers and airlines have helped the technology evolve significantly over the last decade, though it has yet to catch up to compare with home and office networks. .

Royal Caribbean cruise ships take SpaceX internet to the seas 0:57

How does it work

There are two main types of connections on board. The first, known as air-to-ground or ATG, relies on antennas attached to the aircraft that pick up the signal from cell phone towers on the ground.

Intelsat, which launched air-to-ground services with American Airlines in 2008, currently operates a version of the technology on more than 1,000 aircraft across North America.

The main drawback of this technology is that, like cell phone service on the ground, it depends on the density and connectivity of towers, so flights over rural areas, deserts or large bodies of water are likely to suffer. connectivity drops. Top speeds for these systems are currently around 5 megabytes per second (which is shared by hundreds of passengers), according to Andrew Zignani, director of research at tech intelligence firm ABI Research that specializes in wireless connectivity. By comparison, average global download speeds for mobile and fixed broadband are around 30 megabytes per second and 67 megabytes per second, respectively, according to recent data from monitoring app Speedtest.

“To date, the biggest issues have been speed, limited availability, gaps in coverage, outages and price,” Zignani told CNN Business.

That’s why airlines and providers are increasingly turning to satellite connections that are relatively less susceptible to outages because they can more effectively cover the entirety of the flight path from space and keep the signal active as you move around. the air.

That includes Intelsat, which has a network of more than 50 satellites serving airlines including Alaska, American, Delta, United, Air Canada, British Airways and Cathay Pacific.

“As regional aircraft fleets are upgraded, we expect the majority to migrate to satellite-based solutions,” Jeff Sare, Intelsat’s president of commercial aviation, told CNN Business.

Viasat, another major provider used by several airlines around the world, uses its own network of satellites that provide high-speed connectivity and is preparing to launch another constellation of satellites later this year. The company debuted its services on JetBlue in 2013 and now serves more than a dozen airlines around the world.

But even satellite connections currently have a capacity of around 100 megabytes per second per plane or around 15 megabytes per second per passenger device, a far cry from the speeds that terrestrial WiFi is capable of.

Many airlines use a mix of Wi-Fi providers and types of technologies, depending on the type of aircraft and the routes they need to be deployed on.

Newer players like Starlink, the satellite internet service run by billionaire Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, are also getting into the business. Earlier this year, SpaceX announced a partnership with Hawaiian Airlines to provide high-speed internet through Starlink’s network of low-Earth orbit satellites.

“Some of these solutions also take a hybrid approach, combining the best of both technologies to ensure optimal coverage based on the specific flight path,” said Zignani. “I think we will see opportunities for all technologies in the coming years, and recent partnerships show that each technology will have its own role to play,” she added.

challenges and opportunities

There are still gaps between WiFi on board and the networks you’d use in your home, office, coffee shop, or anywhere on land.

While most airline WiFi connections now support messaging and social media features, and some even have live TV and video streaming capabilities, providing users with the same level of bandwidth and connectivity in the air it can be a challenge.

“The biggest point of difference for inflight WiFi is the complexity added by the mobility element,” Don Buchman, Viasat’s vice president and general manager of commercial aviation, told CNN Business. “The aircraft travels at a high speed, typically pitches during flight, and often flies across large geographic areas that demand constant coverage for a high-quality in-flight connectivity experience.”

And while satellites solve some of the restrictions cell towers face, it’s not always easy to expand the satellite network to meet growing demand.

As Intelsat’s Sare puts it: “It’s much faster and cheaper to deploy new cell towers than it is to launch a satellite on a rocket.”

In a survey of airlines, service providers and equipment manufacturers conducted last year by Intelsat, 65% of respondents said they anticipate increases in the number of passengers who expect to be connected while flying. The two biggest impediments to increasing WiFi adoption on board, the survey found, were the high price of the service and “poor Internet connection.”

Companies like Viasat, Intelsat and Starlink continue to expand that capacity, however, launching more satellites each year in anticipation of growing demand for their services. That added capacity will not only improve the online experience for users, but could also give airlines more avenues to monetize and reduce price.

“One example is ad-sponsored inflight WiFi so passengers can access WiFi for free and use it however they want,” Buchman said, adding that Viasat is also exploring ways to use its connectivity services to help airlines with functions such as crew management and aircraft maintenance.

The top priority, according to Intelsat’s Sare, is shortening the time it takes to make those technological advances a reality, and he envisions more partnerships between companies to help advance the industry standard.

“Our vision is achieved when passengers can’t tell the difference between being connected on the ground and in the air.”