Qantas to introduce free Wi-Fi on most flights

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If you can’t stand a couple of hours without checking your email or Facebook when flying, then Qantas has a solution.

The airline has announced a free in-flight Wi-Fi service that will be rolled out across most of its domestic fleet, starting with a single Boeing 737-800 plane that operates along the east coast.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said that Australia is a challenging landmass to provide in-flight Wi-Fi across, but is hopeful that Qantas can make it the “world’s best in-flight Wi-Fi destination”. The service could even be available on flights between the east coast and Perth.

“Bringing high-speed Wi-Fi to the domestic aviation market has been an ambition of ours for a long time and we now have access to the right technology to make it happen,” Mr Joyce said.

In the guise of a Wi-Fi hotspot like any café or McDonald’s, passengers will be able to connect their laptop, tablet or smartphone to a service that Qantas promises will be good enough for streaming services like Netflix and Stan.

However, with a single plane currently capable of providing Wi-Fi, and with Qantas’ fleet of 737s being a grand total of 75 planes, passengers likely won’t know ahead of time if the plane they are stepping on is Wi-Fi enabled or not.

This is due to planes frequently swapping routes on short notice. Multiply that swapping by 75 and the single Wi-Fi enabled plane could be anywhere in Australia, though it is confirmed the plane will mostly be used on east coast routes from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

The full fleet of domestic 737 planes is expected to be equipped within the next 18 months. The same goes for its Airbus A330 planes, used for similar routes. As for international routes, that’s dependent on a successful run of domestic trials, so keep your eyes peeled in the next two years because it’s about to get interesting.

How fast is Qantas in-flight Wi-Fi?

Qantas’ first real-world tests of its Wi-Fi service delivered “typical” download speeds between 7Mbps and 12Mbps, which is in-line with a lot of ADSL services in Australia, and is the equivalent of NBN Tier 1 speeds.

In fact, that is how Qantas will get Wi-Fi coverage across Australia, through NBN Co’s SkyMuster satellite service. Mr Joyce says Qantas’ Wi-Fi delivery will transform the inflight entertainment world.

“You won’t be limited to checking your email or Facebook – it’s going to be about watching the football live, streaming your favourite TV show or movie, catching up on the latest YouTube videos, or shopping online,” he said.

Californian company ViaSat has also come on board, with its services ultimately making planes inter-connected with advanced ground stations and high-capacity ‘KA-band’ satellites.

ViaSat helps deliver inflight internet services to airlines in the US, with Wi-Fi being available on board many US airlines for about a decade. ViaSat services over 500 commercial US aircraft, so its resume is quite impressive.

Typically, results in the US indicate end-user download speeds of about 1-2Mbps per passenger, but the combination of ViaSat and SkyMuster could hopefully deliver faster, more reliable speeds in Australia.

While Qantas says that these 12Mbps download speeds will be enough for HD streaming, it remains to be seen as, even the ground, NBN Co says that Tier 1 speeds are good for little more than browsing the internet and social media, plus the odd YouTube video.

Also consider the fact that 737s can accommodate more than 200 passengers and you’re talking about some pretty hefty congestion. The first trial Qantas undertook had 140 staff connect to the service, with more than 200 devices, so the service seems up to the task. But is it sustainable? We’ll have to wait and see.

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