A road warrior's guide to domestic US inflight Wi-Fi

Many of us spend time more than 10,000 feet above the ground and thanks to modern technology we can continue to be productive. The airline you fly dictates the available service, but in 2016 it's nice to see most flights have access to the internet at 600 mph.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

I was flying at more than 30,000 feet above the ground as ZDNet's Larry Dignan posted his article on Gogo's plan to keep American Airlines lined up for its service for the future.

Many of us spend a considerable amount of time flying and while it would be nice to sleep, watch movies, or hold conversations with those seated around us, we often have to get work done. There are a few types of technology providing internet access to those on airplanes flying over the US and the technology continues to advance in order to provide improved services.

The eDreams travel website has a consolidated list of airlines offering inflight Wi-Fi, but for this article we will start by taking a closer look at US domestic services. Service is currently provided by Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, United, and Virgin America.

There are three technology solutions for providing inflight Wi-Fi, including Ku-band, Gogo, and Ka-band technology. Ku- and Ka-band technologies use satellites in orbit above the Earth while Gogo uses antennas mounted on a network of 160 cellphone towers on the Earth with an antenna on the bottom of the aircraft, thus the 10,000 feet requirement for Gogo service. American, Delta, Southwest, and United use Ku-band, JetBlue and United use Ka-Band, and Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, United, and Virgin America use Gogo. Some airlines use a mix of services.

Viasat uses the Ka-band satellite system while Panasonic and Row 44 use Ku-band solutions. Gogo is launching 2KU technology that may provide up to 70 Mbps service on compatible airplanes as it moves from a ground-based system to a satellite-based system.

I primarily fly Alaska Airlines and have been mostly satisfied with the Gogo service on domestic flights. When I fly to Alaska, service is not provided as we fly over Canada so a solution that uses satellites providing coverage around the world is better.

The table below provides the airlines, service provider(s), and representative prices.

Airlines Service type Price per day/flight Monthly subscription
Alaska Airlines Gogo $16 $49.95
American Airlines Gogo, with 2Ku coming $16 $49.95
Delta Airlines Gogo, with 2Ku coming soon $16 $49.95
JetBlue Viasat-1 (Ka-band) FREE N/A
Southwest Airlines Row 44 (Ku-band) $8 all day N/A
United Gogo, proprietary, Ka-band Varies N/A
Virgin America Gogo $16 $49.95

United is the most confusing as it offers a mix of services, including its own United Wi-Fi satellite service. Pricing isn't available until you check your flight information. It does still have some flights with Gogo service, but other new planes have Ka-band service. Check with United before your flight to see what it offers.

JetBlue looks to have the best service available and confirmed Wi-Fi is available on all 150 of its Airbus A320 and A321 aircraft on flights in the US. The free plan is a high-bandwidth plan with speeds of 12-20 Mbps, allowing things like streaming Amazon video, inflight entertainment, web surfing, email, etc. There is also a $9/hour VPN access option.

It's actually pretty amazing that we are able to travel 30,000 feet above the Earth at about 600 mph and still have access to the internet.

While Wi-Fi in the air is convenient, you also need to be careful how you are using it. USA Today's Steven Petrow wrote an article last week detailing how he was hacked while working on an Apple FBI story.

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