Faster in-flight Wi-Fi could herald end of seat-back entertainment

airlines ramping flight wi fi herald end seat back entertainment united economy plus
This week, United Airlines announced it plans to roll out Wi-Fi to its fleet of 200-plus two-cabin regional jets, the smaller planes that airlines use for short-to-medium-range flights, typically to smaller airports. United will use Gogo’s ATG-4 Wi-Fi service, a next-gen version that uses Gogo’s existing air-to-ground infrastructure and delivers download speeds of up to 9.8 Mbps.

By now, having in-flight Wi-Fi onboard planes isn’t new. Many airlines offer the service on select routes, and some like Virgin America offer Wi-Fi on every plane. But besides letting you surf the Web or check your email, United’s new Wi-Fi service will be fast enough to stream entertainment to personal electronics like smartphones, tablets, and computers.

For travelers on these newly Wi-Fi-enabled United planes – with installations beginning later this year and completed next year; personal device entertainment will be added starting next year – it means they can kill some time in the air, whether it’s catching up on work messages or watching a movie. The download speeds aren’t exactly lightning-fast, but it will be enough to service planes that seat between 50 and 100 people (ATG-4 is currently in use on some of United’s larger Boeing 757 planes). You may wonder why anyone would pay for Wi-Fi and entertainment on short flights; although many of these small jets fly on routes of less than an hour, United does use them on flights that last more than 2.5 hours, such as the Los Angeles-to-Dallas route.

United's regional jets, like this CRJ-700, don't provide seat-back monitors, but the installation of Wi-Fi will allow United to offer onboard entertainment to passengers' personal devices.
United’s regional jets that service short-to-medium haul routes, like this CRJ-700, don’t provide seat-back monitors, but the installation of Wi-Fi will allow United to offer onboard entertainment to passengers’ personal devices. (Credit: United)

But for United, the Gogo Wi-Fi service not only provides new sources of revenue, it also allows the airline to quickly roll out in-flight entertainment (IFE) into planes that normally aren’t outfitted with seat-back IFE monitors. Such systems often require expensive, laborious installations and require planes to be taken out of service for some time, but on smaller jets, space and weight are also an issue. Having an IFE system that uses Wi-Fi not only saves the airline from having to install and maintain monitors in planes – instead, streaming content to devices passengers are likely to bring onboard anyway – but saves money on fuel (less onboard equipment and less weight allows the plane to burn less fuel) while potentially making more money from customers. United will most likely utilize Gogo Vision IFE, which Gogo describes as a lightweight technology that “offers significant savings on installs while reducing fuel burn. For aircraft already equipped with Gogo, Gogo Vision adds no more weight than a can of ginger ale.” Gogo also takes care of digital rights management and payment processing. Several airlines, such as American Airlines, Japan Airlines, U.S. Airways, and Singapore’s Scoot, are already using the system, which are easy to maintain and upgrade using USB flash drives.

The video above shows Virgin America installing Gogo’s ATG-4 Wi-Fi equipment on one of its planes. United will install the same equipment on its fleet of regional jets.

Wi-Fi and personal device entertainment aren’t just relegated to regional jets. United has already started implementing them in its larger mainline planes, but instead of the air-to-ground system, the airline is using a faster satellite-based Wi-Fi. Not only is the Wi-Fi more robust, but it also lets United offer uninterrupted service on international flights that fly over water. Eventually, United could do away with expensive installations of seat-back monitors altogether, and rely solely on Wi-Fi streaming to personal devices; in fact, some of United’s new Boeing 737 with Wi-Fi are equipped with seats sans monitors, but provide USB and AC power plugs for personal devices.

Gogo's 2Ku satellite-based Wi-Fi (equipment shown here) will be be tested on select United 757 aircraft.
Gogo’s 2Ku satellite-based Wi-Fi (equipment shown here) will be be tested on select United 757 aircraft. Gogo has also announced in-flight connectivity partnerships with Virgin Atlantic, Aeromexico, and Vietnam Airlines.

As mentioned, United isn’t the only airline that’s rolling out personal device entertainment (in fact, it’s one airline that was slow to the Wi-Fi game, but is now speeding up rollout). Delta had announced its plans back in 2012, and is also scheduled to finalize installation in 2015. And Gogo isn’t the only Wi-Fi service available; Panasonic Avionics’ eXConnect is another satellite-based service that United is using on some of its planes, like its trans-Pacific Boeing 747s. With nearly every airline adding Wi-Fi to their fleets, seat-back monitors may become a thing of the past.

As for consumers, they’ll need to start learning the acronym BYOD, or “bring your own device,” if they want to access a plane’s personal device entertainment service. It’ll be some time before seat-back displays disappear entirely, but it won’t matter – chances are, fliers are already traveling with the necessary gear anyway.

Although United's P.S. transcontinental service on Boeing 757 have advanced seat-back monitors for on-demand entertainment, United could do away with them in the future as it rolls out Wi-Fi.
Although United’s P.S. transcontinental service on Boeing 757 have advanced seat-back monitors for on-demand entertainment, United could do away with them in the future as it rolls out Wi-Fi. (Credit: United)
Deals

Walmart drops prices on Apple Watches and other fitness trackers

Smartwatches, fitness trackers, and wearable heart rate monitors from Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, and Garmin are popular gifts. Wearables are smarter and more capable than in earlier years. We found the best wearables deals on Walmart.
Wearables

Our favorite fitness trackers make it fun to keep moving

Looking for your first fitness tracker, or an upgrade to the one you're already wearing? There are plenty of the wrist-worn gadgets available. Here are our picks for the best fitness trackers available right now.
Gaming

How do Nintendo Switch, Xbox One X compare to each other? We find out

The Nintendo Switch is innovative enough to stand apart from traditional consoles, but could it become your primary gaming system? How does the Switch stack up against the Xbox One?
Gaming

Xbox One S vs. PlayStation 4 Slim: Which console is worth your money?

Microsoft's new Xbox One S and Sony's PlayStation 4 "Slim" have bucked the generational gaming console trend. But which of these stopgap systems is worth spending your paycheck on?
Smart Home

Ring Alarm vs. Nest Secure: Which one is right for you?

Thanks to the advance of technology, it's become really easy nowadays to secure your home and protect it from thieves, intruders, and unwanted guests. Which one of these two top contenders is right for you?
Wearables

The best Wear OS watches

There are a ton of different Wear OS watches out there, but which one's right for you? No matter what you're looking for from a smartwatch, here are the best Wear OS watches out there.
Emerging Tech

Capture app saves money by 3D scanning objects using iPhone’s TrueDepth camera

Capture is a new iPhone app created by the Y Combinator-backed startup Standard Cyborg. It allows anyone to perform 3D scans of objects and share them with buddies. Here's how it works.
Home Theater

How to master your equalizer settings for the perfect sound

You may know what an EQ is, but do you know how to adjust equalizer settings for the best possible sound? We go through the basics of the modern EQ and lay out some guidelines for how to achieve tip-top sound from your system.
Mobile

How to switch from iPhone to Android: The ultimate guide

If you've decided to bridge the great tech divide and leave Apple's walled garden for the unknown shores of Android, then you'll find all the tips and advice you need to begin switching from an iPhone to an Android device.
Smart Home

This device detects when your pet is at the door and opens it for them

Tired of waiting for your dog to come inside, or running home in the middle of the day to let your four-legged friend out? Wayzn automatically opens sliding doors for your dog and gives you remote control.
Mobile

Apple pushing update to iPhone in China in response to legal troubles

Apple has been facing legal issues in China due to alleged infringements of patents from Qualcomm Inc. On Friday, Apple announced it will push a software update in China in hopes of resolving any potential legal issues around the iPhone.
Mobile

Need a quick battery boost? Try one of our favorite portable chargers

Battery life still tops the polls when it comes to smartphone concerns. If it’s bugging you, then maybe it’s time to snag yourself a portable charger. Here are our picks of the best portable chargers.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Booze-filled ski poles and crypto piggy banks

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Mobile

iOS jailbreak app store Cydia shuts down purchasing

For years, iOS users have been jailbreaking their devices to install software not approved by Apple. But now the popular app store alternative Cydia will no longer be accepting purchases.