Internet On Airplanes - How Does Wi-Fi Work?

Nov 12, 2010 By Deepa Gopal
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You are flying on an airplane and you want to know how your favorite basketball or football team is faring?

Well, no need to fret - you can get on GoGo in-flight internet! Google recently announced free internet on select flights over the holiday season.

So, how does internet work 40,000 feet up in the sky?

What is WiFi?

WiFi stands for Wireless Fidelity; it is the technology used by your computers and laptops to connect to the Internet without the need for any wires. The actual technology is called 802.11 - it is a standard developed by the companies that develop and use this technology.

The easiest way to explain how WiFi works is through the example of a cordless phone. You have all seen one - it has the base with a cradle to hold your phone and a handset that you can carry around as you are talking.

The base has a cord that you plug into the phone jack. The base unit converts the incoming call into a radio signal that is sent out in the air. This signal is detected by the antenna on your handset and this allows the two to communicate.

This is the same concept for Wi-Fi. Your laptop or computer has a built-in antenna. The base unit is called a 'router' that is connected to the internet through a cable. The data between the router and your laptop is transmitted as binary (0 or 1) signals - a signal may look like 111001011010101. It does not make much sense to us, but that is how digital data is transmitted when you go to the Youngzine website on your laptop.

Starbucks, cities and now planes!

Coffee shops like Starbucks, airports and even some cities have free WiFi. To set up WiFi in a big area, companies have to install antenna all over the place - in cities, antennae are set up on top of street lights.

For WiFi to work on planes, imagine a big 'handset' on the plane that talks to the wireless antenna on your laptops. This big 'handset' then communicates with a base unit - a tower on the ground through a satellite or directly. There are many wireless towers built across the country so that as a plane flies, a different tower will communicate with the plane at each time.