LAS VEGAS—When I’m on board a airplane, connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, the truth is, the truth is I don’t put a lot of thought into how the Wi-Fi network on board the plane is keeping me tethered to the rest of the world even when I’m cruising along 20,000 feet above it.
As it turns out, it doesn’t take a lot of parts to keep you connected up in the air, though that simple collection requires a pretty sophisticated setup. And all it took to learn about the 21st century world of in-flight Wi-Fi was to get on board a plane straight out of the 1940s.
As part of International CES, Global Eagle Entertainment was taking reporters for a ride on a Grumman Albatross seaplane to show off the in-flight entertainment and connectivity services it delivers to airlines through its Row 44 subsidiary.
Global Eagle serves more than 130 airlines around the globe, including providing the in-flight Wi-Fi for Southwest Airlines in the U.S. Our Friday flight plan included a takeoff from a regional airport outside of Las Vegas, a quick jaunt out to Lake Mead, all while hearing about how we were able to maintain Internet connectivity even as our plane made a water landing on the lake itself.
And no—no one ever told me to turn on my iPhone’s Airplane Mode setting.
Global Eagle’s Albatross One seaplane isn’t just a gimmick to wow jaded reporters who’ve seen one too many booth demos after a week at CES. The company uses its plane as an actual flying testbed for installing and improving the satellite-based communication system it install on commercial jetliners.
The fuselage on the Albatross turns out to be similar enough to that of a 737 narrow-body airline for Global Eagle to have an accurate testing environment. And the cabin of the older aircraft is wide enough for Global Eagle’s engineers to move around at will during flights. Indeed, I’m a bit of white-knuckle flier, and the ride on the Albatross was so smooth, I was surprised to find out that we had actually landed while I was standing up in the middle of the cabin. (I do not recommend trying that on your next commercial flight.)
To keep us connected as we flew breathtakingly close to the assorted cliffs around Lake Mead, the Albatross sports a 30-inch-by-6-inch antenna that’s always pointing at a satellite, making adjustments according to the plane’s attitude. The antenna’s controlled from a box inside the plane, attached to the ceiling and connected to a transceiver and a modem for receiving and sending out signals between the plane and the satellite.
A server is at heart of Global Eagle’s system, not only powering the equipment inside the plane, but also processing passenger sign-ins and containing some of the on-board content passengers access. Global Eagle also sets up wireless access points throughout the plane’s cabin for passenger connections. On the Albatross, there was just one visible wireless access point, but Row 44 senior engineer Simon McLellan told me that there are typically three to six wireless access points in a typical setup, depending on the size of the plane and the services being offered.
In the case of Southwest Airlines, those services include Internet access—$8 for all-day access per device—as well as live and on-demand TV provided via Dish. (On-demand movies are also available, but for a separate charge.) You’re able to watch that content on your own tablet or smartphone, a more sensible solution than setback monitors given Southwest’s dense seating arrangements.
Southwest also uses Row 44’s networking setup to providing a messaging service via Apple’s iMessage software, with support for other chat apps coming soon. Southwest says you can use approved Wi-Fi-enabled devices gate-to-gate on its planes.
The setup I saw in the Global Eagle Albatross Thursday morning mirrored the same system that delivers Wi-Fi connectivity in Southwest’s fleet. So it was sort of a hoot to step on a Southwest plane on my flight out of Las Vegas later that evening and hear about the same services I saw demoed on a 60-year-old seaplane. I’m just glad that the Southwest 737 I was on didn’t attempt to pull off its own water landing on Lake Mead.