Why airlines’ in-flight wi-fi will always be expensive: Peter Nowak

High wi-fi fees are here to stay

Airplane cabin interior

(Albert Domasin)

We’re on the cusp of a wi-fi revolution in the skies, according to Jean-Bernard Levy, the chairman and chief executive of French defense contractor Thales.

“In the near future the cost of that broadband on that plane will fall dramatically so that you can watch TV, access Facebook, or check your bank account while you are on the flight and you’ll be charged like you are today in a hotel,” he told The Telegraph this past weekend.

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Given some of the current realities, that seems to be a bit of a pie-in-the-sky forecast (forgive the pun).

For one thing, the travel industry isn’t known for supplying decent wi-fi at reasonable prices. The state of hotel wi-fi – where it’s often terrible or expensive, or both – is a good example that mirrors the current situation with connectivity on planes. Airborne wi-fi is often either slow or pricey, sometimes both, but that doesn’t stop airlines from charging up to $27 for access on a transcontinental flight.

READ: Why hotel wi-fi is so terrible, and what to do about it »

Speaking of which, airlines aren’t exactly known for their aversion to extraneous fees. When carriers such as U.S.-based Spirit charge $26 for a carry-on bag – that’s right, a carry-on, never mind checked baggage – it’s a safe bet that some will always seek to boost revenue with wi-fi.

Then there’s the technological issue itself. Internet connectivity is delivered to planes either by expensive ground-based cell towers or via even more expensive satellite relays, which means there will always be a significantly higher cost for this sort of access than there is for the terrestrial equivalent.

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Combine this with the fact that the biggest provider so far, U.S.-based Gogo, is a publicly listed company that has a responsibility to deliver ever-increasing dividends to shareholders and it’s a fair bet that wi-fi in the skies isn’t going to be both good and affordable any time soon, despite what French defense contractors might say.