Traveling by air is expensive, but the sticker shock doesn’t stop once you’ve purchased your ticket and paid your airline’s fees to check your bags. If you were hoping to use the in-flight Wi-Fi network to get some work done, or just to zone out and browse the internet or watch Netflix, you’ll likely be unpleasantly surprised by how much it costs to access that network.
Exorbitant fees aren’t the only reasons you should think twice about using in-flight Wi-Fi. In-flight Wi-Fi is notoriously slow, sometimes to a degree that it’s practically unusable. And perhaps worse, there are plenty of privacy and security concerns to be aware of when you’re connecting to an in-flight network. Read on to check out some of the top reasons why you shouldn’t use in-flight Wi-Fi the next time you’re traveling by air.
1. Providers overcharge for in-flight Wi-Fi
The prices for in-flight Wi-Fi access vary. You’ll likely see them change depending on when and where you fly. The prices that an airline charges on one route may be a lot more (or a lot less) than what the same airline charges on a different route. Prices vary based on the day of the week. A phenomenon called dynamic pricing is at play. The companies providing in-flight Wi-Fi constantly analyze usage and use pricing to regulate capacity and keep the services from being overloaded.
But as The Cheat Sheet reported in 2015, prices have gone up considerably in the past few years. That’s in part thanks to airlines’ realization that business travelers will pay any price when it’s their employer who’s footing the bill. Prices are high and unpredictable, and providers like Gogo rely on high prices to ease crowding on their networks. Charging more than the average traveler with a smartphone wants to pay keeps at least some of those travelers from connecting. Which, it turns out, is an important part of making sure that in-flight networks aren’t completely unusable for the users who do choose to connect.
2. The Wi-Fi speeds you’ll get on a plane often make it too slow to be usable
In-flight Wi-Fi works like the cellular networks that provide service for smartphones. They use antennas to transmit signals to and from towers on the ground. Adding capacity is difficult, since there’s a limited amount of radio spectrum available. Satellite technology enables providers to offer Wi-Fi when a plane is flying over water. The speed that you get on an in-flight Wi-Fi network is determined by the kind of network and whether it connects to satellites in orbit or to ground-based towers.
Depending on how your plane gets its internet connection and what sort of antenna it’s equipped with, the network could support a connection between 3Mbps and 70Mbps. But that’s shared capacity, which you’ll split not only with all of the other passengers in your cabin, but also with the other planes in the same airspace. In some cases, each passenger may experience speeds of just 1 or 2Mbps — which is hardly usable for things like streaming Netflix, browsing the web, or whatever else you like to do when you’re killing time on a flight.
3. In-flight Wi-Fi is still a monopoly
Gogo has a wide-ranging monopoly on in-flight Wi-Fi. (Bloomberg reported mid-2015 that Gogo commanded 80% of the market.) Despite the fact that everyone knows Gogo Wi-Fi is extremely slow, the company isn’t planning on making major upgrades to its networks until 2018. Thomas Gryta and Andy Pasztor report for The Wall Street Journal that Gogo’s “overburdened” systems have struggled to keep pace with rising demand, but the original network “hasn’t had a major upgrade since launching in 2008.” The platform was built over several years, starting in 2006 before the era of smartphones, and delivers speeds of about 10Mbps to a plane.
Gogo’s planned upgrade will bring faster in-flight connections, with speeds exceeding 100Mbps for each plane. But it’s based on LTE technology and requires new equipment on both cellular towers and planes, which explains why the upgrades won’t be available until 2018. Gogo’s networks are ill-equipped for the proliferation of smartphones and haven’t kept up with the faster services rolled out by rivals like ViaSat and Global Eagle. That’s why Gogo has used higher prices to control demand for limited bandwidth. As the Journal notes, “Even those willing to pay more than $30 for Gogo on a cross-country flight don’t get speeds good enough to stream videos.”
4. Public Wi-Fi networks aren’t secure, and in-flight networks are worse than average
Sean Gallagher reports for Ars Technica that in-flight Wi-Fi networks can pose even more security concerns than the typical free Wi-Fi network. In fact, in-flight Wi-Fi offers “a perfect environment for an attacker to undermine the security of other passengers’ communications.” Gallagher adds, “It’s something that could easily be fixed, but in-flight Internet providers are in no hurry to do so, because it’s not in their interest.”
Gallagher notes that in-flight Wi-Fi services like those offered by Gogo and Global Eagle are, in many ways, just like the public Wi-Fi available at coffee shops, malls, hotels, and other locations that grant access through a “captive portal.” (That’s the login screen that pops in your browser window.) There’s no password protection on the Wi-Fi connection, so there’s no privacy protection for the raw traffic. Anyone watching can intercept what gets passed through the wireless access point.
But Gallagher reports that “some in-flight networks break privacy even harder and introduce more potential ways to attack devices using them, because they either inadvertently or purposely block some of the most basic networking security tools: secure HTTP and some virtual private networks.” Gogo specifically designed its network to comply with law enforcement interest in seeing what passengers are doing online. Which leads us to our next point.
5. The NSA watches your in-flight phone usage
Joon Ian Wong recently reports for Quartz that if you care about your privacy, you shouldn’t connect your phone to an in-flight cellular networks. That’s because both “American and British intelligence agencies have been surveilling phone use aboard civil aircraft since at least 2005.” Even turning your phone on when the plane is flying above 10,000 feet will reportedly reveal your location to the NSA. The agencies can extract a variety of information from your phone and can then correlate that data with facts like the plane’s passenger list to pinpoint specific users. They can also see what you’re doing on your phone.
In-flight cellular networks, of course, are different from in-flight Wi-Fi networks. And PC Mag reports that airlines “have largely moved away from offering cell phone service in flight as they focus their attention on rolling out faster Wi-Fi.” But if you are flying an airline that offers to let you use a cellular network right from the cabin, don’t assume that that’s a more private option than an in-flight Wi-Fi network. It’s not, since you may end up having your activity monitored and your calls listened in on.
6. With a little bit of advanced planning, you can avoid in-flight Wi-Fi altogether
For most people, an expensive, slow, and insecure Wi-Fi connection isn’t worth it. That’s especially true when you consider the fact that with a little bit of advanced planning, you can download everything you need to your device and avoid the question of whether you should shell out for an in-flight connection altogether. You can download documents and spreadsheets to work on locally, or queue up a reading list of articles you wanted to catch up on. You can even download some Netflix content, or save your favorite music locally so that you don’t need to stream it.
If you do opt to use in-flight Wi-Fi, consider trying to get a VPN connection to work, and ensure that you’ve enabled the firewall software on your computer. Also, check the certificates of secure websites, and if any show you a warning, then just wait until you have a more secure network to use them. It may be a good idea to stash a book or a magazine in your bag, just in case.