The History and Evolution of Wi-Fi

July 13, 2017 | Author: Benet Wilson

In 1970, I took my very first airline flight, on Pan Am. It was from New York’s JFK Airport to London Heathrow on a Boeing 747. I was excited about this trip for many reasons, one of them being that I’d be able to watch an actual movie on the flight.

Back then, there was a large screen that rolled down on the cabin’s bulkhead, and we wore these tube-like headphones to watch the movie. But if you wanted any other amusement once the film was over, you had to pack books and magazines, especially if the flight was long.

Behind the scenes, airline flight crews used reams of paper for basic functions including reservations, ticketing, maintenance, scheduling and revenue management. And pilots carried their flight plan maps and charts in large, heavy flight bags.

Inflight entertainment grew in fits and starts in the 1980s and 1990s, with airlines using options including video cassettes, laser discs and video drop-down screens, along with curated music channels and headphones with better sound quality.

Beginning in 2000, Wi-Fi access took inflight entertainment and communications to the next level. The product as we know it now was originally invented in 1997, when a committee called 802.11 first created wireless local area networks. Two years later, routers were developed that brought the technology into homes.

Boeing began researching the possibility of bringing Wi-Fi to the skies back in the 1980s. On April 27, 2000, the company unveiled Connexion by Boeing, its version of high-speed Wi-Fi for the commercial aviation market. Lufthansa was announced as Connexion’s launch customer at the 2001 Paris Air Show.

While it proved popular with travelers, Boeing pulled the plug on Connexion on August 17, 2006, saying the market didn’t materialize as expected for the service. But the genie was out of the bottle, and companies like Gogo, Row 44, OnAir, AeroMobile and Aircell came into the market to fill the gap left by Boeing.

Thanks to Boeing’s pioneering work, the Wi-Fi floodgates opened, allowing airlines to expand the inflight entertainment services they could offer passengers. Carriers began installing services including audio and video on demand, data communications, video games, phones, and moving maps that allowed travelers to track their flights in real time.

And once that started, it was only a matter of time until Wi-Fi would be used to further expand what could be done on a plane. Honeywell Aerospace made a big leap into that space when in August 2011, it acquired EMS Technologies, a company that provided connectivity solutions for mobile networking, rugged mobile computers and satellite communication.

The technology in that platform was used to help Honeywell Aerospace create the Connected Aircraft. Because so much data is generated on every flight, airlines can use it to monitor everything from takeoff and landing to maintenance. And that data helps airlines operate more efficiently at a lower cost, all while offering increased safety and efficiency for passengers.

The Connected Aircraft offers useful benefits to three groups: pilots and their flight crews, the airlines and, most importantly, passengers. For pilots, the Connected Aircraft offers tools that let them view, track and share weather data in real time, called GoDirect Weather. This benefits passengers because it helps cut flight times and allows pilots to change routes ahead of bad weather. It also gives them access to updated and customized wind and temperature information throughout a flight.

Pilots also have access to GoDirect Flight Preview, an app that increases situational awareness for pilots by allowing them to virtually see how to fly into an airport prior to actually having to do it.

Airlines using the Connected Aircraft have access to tools including GoDirect Connected Maintenance, which wirelessly connects mechanical systems for analysis. The data generated allows airline ground crews to identify components that will need maintenance or replacement before a plane lands and ensures that needed parts are available, reducing inoperative systems by up to 35 percent!

Carriers using Honeywell’s JetWave satellite communications, powered by Inmarsat’s satellite Global Xpress Ka-band network, can offer their passengers inflight Wi-Fi speeds that are close to the connectivity they get in their homes. With speeds like that, passengers can do things like video streaming, live television streaming, text messaging, internet browsing and file downloads doing it with a service that offers a great experience.

Looking to the future, travelers have made it very clear. They not only want, but they expect, consistent, faster inflight connections, according to a 2016 Honeywell survey on inflight Wi-Fi. And if passengers don’t get that, they will not hesitate to switch to airlines that offer it.

Benet Wilson

Benet Wilson

Benét J. Wilson is a veteran freelance aviation journalist and blogger based in Baltimore. She has worked for aviation trade publications including Aviation Week and Aviation Daily. She has also managed communications for two airlines, an aircraft engine manufacturer and two aviation nonprofit organizations. Her clients have included Airport Business magazine, the Runway Girl Network, USA Today, AirwaysMagazine.com, Tnooz, the Airline Passenger Experience magazine, ACI-NA Centerlines magazine, and Airport World. She graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., with a B.A. in broadcast journalism. She is an Air Force brat and is a student pilot.

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