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Wi-Fi at 30,000 feet: Here's how to deal

Just say it: in-flight Wi-Fi is expensive and painstakingly slow. But if you're going to purchase it anyway, here are a few tips that'll get more bang for your buck.

Sharon Profis Vice President of Content
Sharon Profis is a vice president of content.
Sharon Profis
4 min read


Two-hour jaunt or cross-country flight, time without Internet is an exercise of self-control not everyone is willing to flirt with. Call it obsessed or call it nomophobia, we want our Web access -- even at 30,000 feet.

According to a recent study by Routehappy, a flight search site, in-flight Wi-Fi is now available on 38 percent of US domestic flights, with Delta as the leading Wi-Fi provider. And thanks to current FAA initiatives and ongoing Wi-Fi installations, that number is only expected to grow.

It's an exciting trend for Web addicts, but frequent fliers will quickly tell you: in-flight Wi-Fi is expensive and painstakingly slow.

Despite it all, there's work to be done, articles to be read, and celebrity sightings to be posted on Facebook while midair. So if you're going to fork over the cash for Web access, here are some tips to make it worthwhile.

Shop ahead

In-flight Wi-Fi is outrageously expensive. Gogo, the largest US provider of in-flight Wi-Fi, typically charges $14 for an all-day pass, $49 for a monthly pass, and $39 for a monthly pass on your airline of choice.

Aside from running a business, there are two reasons why Gogo charges so darn much. For starters, the steep prices are intended to offend passengers so much that most of them won't purchase the service. Seriously. Gogo can only support so many passengers, so the costly barrier to entry keeps the number of simultaneous users down.

Secondly, Gogo's costs are quite expensive. According to Gigaom, it's estimated that each megabyte delivered costs Gogo about 20 cents. With these high costs, Gogo sets such prohibitive prices just to keep up. (Alas, it turns out the company has yet to report a profit.)

Pro tip: For starters, shop ahead for in-flight Wi-Fi. You'll often find passes available at discounted rates through your airline or a promotion from the Wi-Fi provider. For example, American Airlines is currently advertising a 2-for-$20 special on all-day passes.

Another way to get a better deal is to trick the Internet provider into thinking you're on mobile. Some providers, like Gogo, charge less for mobile access based on your browser ID. So, before your flight, install the User Agent Switcher for Chrome or Firefox and set it to mobile.

Set your expectations

Netflix or Hulu? Forget it. Downloading an iPad game? Nope.

Just before you purchase Wi-Fi, you'll get a small notification warning you that services like these are unavailable. It's not that the provider doesn't want you to have fun, or make flying more intolerable than it already is -- the bandwidth simply isn't there.

According to Gogo, its most-implemented in-flight Wi-Fi technology, Air To Ground, maxes out at 3.1Mbps. Its next-generation tech, currently in about 300 airplanes, peaks at about 9.8Mbps. Now, take that 3.1Mbps speed and divide among every passenger who purchased access. There's your speed.

It's like dial-up. With a little chutzpah.

Pro tip: If you'd like to squeeze in a movie or TV show between work assignments, download the files ahead of time. To our dismay, there simply aren't any workarounds -- any time the Wireless Access Point detects a data-heavy transaction, the activity will immediately be stopped. That goes for streaming media, large downloads, and even VoIP services like Skype.

That might change soon, though. Gogo is expected to announce a new satellite-based service in September that will increase the maximum bandwidth per passenger.

Take extra security measures

Once you're paid for and online, in-flight Wi-Fi functions like an unsecured network -- it's unencrypted, leaving you with zero protection from anyone else on the plane.

It's unlikely an aircraft will be a hacker's choice location for data-snooping, but this lack of security makes it relatively easy for those experienced to gain access to your Web activity.

As explained in a related CNET report, "Someone could upload an executable program to a file on your hard drive that steals data or just leaves a back door for future access."

Pro tip: Create your own security bubble. There are several measures you can take to safely browse an unsecured Wi-Fi network, outlined here in our post, "6 ways to use public Wi-Fi hot spots safely." Lifehacker also offers some great advice.

Disable background activity

Let's talk about that 3.1Mbps again (divided by the number of passengers accessing Wi-Fi). When working with so little bandwidth, any background processes can slow down your primary process, bringing back the type of 1994 Web-surfing you didn't really care to relive.

Pro tip: Think about the many Internet-based tasks your PC runs, like updating your inbox, syncing cloud storage, and checking for software updates.

Before you get onboard the aircraft, disable system and program updates. The last thing you need is an automatic update cramping your Wi-Fi style. Likewise, disable automatic syncing, and be sure to update your inbox in advance.

Bonus tip: Check the seating map!

If you know you'll be purchasing Wi-Fi on an upcoming flight, be sure to confirm that the flight you're booking offers the service, and, as a bonus, includes power ports.

One great resource for this is Seat Guru. As you search for flights, keep Seat Guru open in a tab, where you can enter the airline and flight number to find out if the aircraft includes these amenities. (And while you're there, check out the site's other useful features, like reviews about specific seats.)

Alternatively, most airlines have a dedicated page outlining Wi-Fi pricing and availability.