In-flight Wi-Fi is pretty terrible, but when you consider that a plane going roughly 500 mph can have an internet connection at all, it's still an impressive technological achievement. Even so, a few companies think they can make plane Wi-Fi less terrible, and have formed the 'Seamless Air Alliance.'

The group currently consists of Airbus, Delta, Sprint, Bharti Airtel, OneWeb, GoGo, EchoStar, and two US-based satellite companies. There are only two concrete proposals at the moment - make in-flight internet faster, and make it accessible to everyone on the plane without a separate charge. The group wants to make plane internet comparable to "the fastest cable access." For comparison, GoGo's 2KU satellite internet is the leading technology in this area, and it aims to deliver up to 100mb/s of download bandwidth.

All of this is easier said than done, and the group says there are many technological and regulatory roadblocks on the way to fast in-flight WiFi. But as video streaming services and other bandwidth-heavy activites become more common, planes with speedy internet could gain a major competitive edge.

Press Release

Under the Seamless Air Alliance initiative, passengers wouldn’t have to pay separately for broadband services on board. PHOTO: LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS
By Andy Pasztor

Updated Feb. 25, 2018 8:14 p.m. ET

Airbus SE , EADSY 0.81% Delta Air Lines Inc., DAL 2.30% SprintCorp. S 0.94% and two U.S. satellite-services providers have kicked off an initiative to enhance internet access on airliners, inviting other companies to join voluntary efforts to upgrade global standards for airborne connectivity.

The concept, still in its early stages, likely will require time to gain traction and develop necessary hardware and software changes. It also hinges on technical approvals from government regulators and aviation groups, along with overcoming traditional rivalries between wireless and satellite-services companies.

But if enough carriers, plane makers, communications providers and equipment suppliers eventually sign on, it could usher in an entirely new approach to airborne connectivity: faster speeds plus an improved user experience because passengers wouldn’t have to pay separately for broadband services on board.

A group calling itself the Seamless Air Alliance spelled out benefits of the potential changes on Sunday in Barcelona in conjunction with the opening of the Mobile World Congress, the annual gathering of the telecommunications industry. Mobile operators world-wide would be able to extend service directly into airliner cabins, allowing passengers to use their phones, tablets or other devices to seamlessly connect to the web while airborne.

As envisioned by proponents, connections would be available for an array of devices using various mobile networks just the way Wi-Fi hot spots now work on the ground. Connection speeds, rivaling the fastest cable access, would be comparable with those expected with widespread rollout of commercial fifth-generation, or 5G, cellular service across the U.S.

For passengers, extra benefits would be avoiding the time, and sometimes frustration, of having to authenticate devices and use credit cards to pay for them before logging on during flights.

In addition to Sprint, the No. 4 mobile carrier in the U.S. by subscribers, the alliance includes New Delhi-based Bharti Airtel Ltd. , which operates mobile networks in 16 countries across Asia and Africa.

Other early members include OneWeb Ltd. , a satellite startup developing a global broadband network; EchoStar Corp.’s Hughes Network Systems; and in-flight internet provider GoGo Inc. Together, companies already backing the initiative carry some 150 million airline passengers and serve roughly 450 million mobile users world-wide.

For years, many airlines around the globe have struggled with persistent user complaints about high prices, low speeds and sometimes-balky systems that offer internet access for passengers. Some carriers have experimented with upgraded satellite connections, while others have opted to make such services free.

If the latest concept takes off, airlines could eliminate the costs and hurdles of certifying and installing customized cabin internet systems, according to Greg Wyler, OneWeb’s founder. In an interview, Mr. Wyler said uniform hardware and operating standards are intended to provide outstanding “service quality that airlines and mobile operators can be proud of.”

Mr. Wyler stressed the alliance hopes to persuade many other companies to join, with the long-term goal of simplifying and improving the passenger experience through lower costs and easier use. “There are no smiles included” with current airborne broadband systems, he joked, adding that initial tests of the new approach could take place before the end of the year.

OneWeb, slated to commence service in coming years, would provide part of the satellite component.

Airbus and Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp., which owns more than 80% of Sprint, both are partners with Mr. Wyler in OneWeb.

In a news release, Gil West, Delta’s chief operating officer, said “we are excited to be collaborating” with forward-looking companies, including existing partner GoGo, to develop a system “that not only benefits Delta customers, but the entire airline industry.” The same release quotes Dow Draper, Sprint’s chief commercial officer, about the aim of “enabling customers to experience Sprint’s high-speed connectivity in the air, hassle-free.”

Some skeptics, however, question the proposal’s ultimate reach and competitiveness. With the largest global satellite fleets marketing as much as four times the capacity they had just a few years ago, prices of existing options for airborne connectivity have dropped sharply, according to industry analyst Roger Rusch. That trend, he said, could make it especially hard for new entrants such as OneWeb’s low-Earth-orbit constellation to compete.

 Apart from significant technical challenges of devising common standards acceptable to many different industry players, the concept doesn’t yet address basic economic issues. Relationships between airlines and their internet providers often are fraught, and past disputes about divvying up costs and profits prompted the demise of several would-be projects.

Mark Dankberg, chairman and chief executive of satellite operator ViaSa t Inc., is rolling out higher-speed internet connections to customers, including airlines. In an interview Friday, Mr. Dankberg said ViaSat, with roughly 600 airliners in its system, has 1,000 additional aircraft under contract to be connected around the globe. United Continental Holdings Inc., American Airlines GroupInc. and JetBlue Airways Corp. are among ViaSat’s customers.

Mr. Dankberg said the upgraded internet connections are poised to benefit passengers flying across the Atlantic, the Caribbean and parts of Latin America. He also said the new system would alleviate capacity issues that can impair passenger connectivity near busy hub airports.

Write to Andy Pasztor at [email protected]
Appeared in the February 26, 2018, print edition as 'Firms Push Better In-Flight Web Access.'