The last bastion of escape from the connected world we live in is about to disappear. As much as I love my technology and the idea that we are all connected in so many different ways – no matter where we are or what we are doing – there is sometimes a small feeling of relief when I board a plane and lose connection to the outside world for just an hour or two. Reality hits you with a series of vibrations when you come into land and the stream of urgent and critical messages flow into your phone. The expectation of many people in society now is that an instant response to that e-mail/text/DM is still not quick enough. Having to wait an hour for a reply is as good as slapping someone in the face and telling them that you never want to talk to them again and, by the way, you never liked them anyway!

Qantas is currently trialling free Wi-Fi on one Boeing 737-800 (registration VH-XZB for those interested) and Virgin Australia will be launching their version shortly. I am sure others will follow in the coming months and years although the cost of implementation may be too exorbitant for smaller carriers (and some of those are more focused on keeping propellers on planes at the moment).

This isn’t the first exploration into on-flight connectivity by Qantas. In 2012, they scrapped plans for Internet access on the Airbus A380 fleet, citing a lacklustre response from travellers across a nine-month trial where the uptake was less than five per cent. How times have changed. The expectation for the latest iteration is that over fifty per cent of people will be using the service.

I am sure our appetite for connectivity has increased dramatically in five years but the technology has improved as well. The Qantas Wi-Fi will connect to a pair of Sky Muster satellites which covers all of their domestic flight routes. When a user connects their house to a geostationary satellite, the equation is a bit easier because the house remains stationary in relation to a satellite 36,000km above us. Connecting a jet that is travelling at 900 kilometres per hour to a geostationary satellite is somewhat trickier – but the initial results are quite impressive. Ignoring the inherent latency involved with signal transmissions over such a huge distance, users are seeing speeds of around 7 to 12 megabits per second (Mbps). By way of comparison, an ADSL connection has a top theoretical 8Mbps; ADSL2+ is 20Mbps and NBN FTTN and FTTP without a Speed Boost is 25Mbps. At these initial speeds, users will not just be able to read and update their social media streams but also stream movies and shows from the likes of Netflix and Foxtel. This may well be the first step in the redundancy of in-flight entertainment with an expectation that users bring on-board their own entertainment.

Australia’s airlines are dragging the chain slightly though. There are sixteen major airlines in the US that currently offer in-flight Wi-Fi and it has been available for some time. I have used some of those services and they left a lot to be desired. Slow with high latency and unreliable – and they were the best features! One of the advantages that we are seeing by the delay in implementation here in Australia is that most of the development work has already occurred and, judging by the initial user reports, this version will be much better.

Assuming all goes to plan, the full fleet of 80 Qantas 737 planes and A330 plans will have Wi-Fi by the middle of next year. There are no plans announced at this stage for the regional planes such as the Dash 8.

For those who are stressing too much about the fact that you may have lost the last place where you could get some peace and quiet, remember there is always the off switch. Then again, I am not sure what the solution is when you are stuck beside the person who just can’t put their phone down!

Mathew Dickerson

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