Saturday, 08 April 2017 19:20

Qantas launches fast, free on-flight Wi-Fi Featured

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On 7 April, Qantas switched on its fast, free onboard Wi-Fi for passengers on board Boeing 737-800 VH-XZB. iTWire was there to try it out.

The Wi-Fi has been under test for several months and will continue to be tested by passengers on VH-XZB's flights. You can tell if you are on this plane by the bold, red Internet-enabled Wi-Fi message on the side, as well as by its hump where the satellite communications are housed.

QANTAS B738 VH XZB Wi Fi launch

Qantas expects to conclude testing by mid-year and then roll out the technology across the domestic fleet, with Alan Joyce, chief executive, stating it would be installed in 80 aircraft by the end of 2018.

Qantas has partnered with ViaSat and uses two satellites covering Australia. While in-flight Wi-Fi has been available in other nations for some time, the Qantas' implementation is more than 10 times faster, thanks to using the Ka frequency band over Ku, as well as working with NBN Sky Muster satellites, a ViaSat representative explained to me.

iTWire was on the launch flight where Qantas unveiled its in-flight Wi-Fi to a collection of media and VIPs from Qantas and the CSIRO among a bright collection of #QFWiFi balloons and cupcakes. My boarding pass announced I was on a "mystery flight" while the flight noticeboards amusingly indicated our flight was both departing from, and arriving in, Sydney.

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Prior to take-off, Qantas announced caveats, primarily to manage expectations for the non-technical press. Firstly, uploads would be significantly less performant than downloads, though Qantas intends to boost upload performance as its work on the technology progresses. Secondly, App Store downloads were blocked so all necessary apps such as NetFlix, Stan and Spotify would have to be pre-loaded on smartphones and tablets. A third and final constraint was that voice and video calls were not permitted, primarily to prevent a noisy cabin experience for passengers.

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I didn't wait around for the plane to get moving; as soon as I had my seat I checked for the Qantas Wi-Fi SSID and joined. This is implemented by an open Wi-Fi network, followed by opening a special URL wifi.qantas.com which displays mandatory terms and conditions before prompting for your name and seat number, then granting access.

Among other things, the terms and conditions state Qantas will collect details such as name, device type, MAC address and — note this one — browsing history in order to improve the service, ensure the safety and security of passengers, and to conduct marketing activities and research. This information may be disclosed to related companies including ViaSat Inc. and other organisations including law enforcement.

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The conditions further state the service is not guaranteed and may be subject to various factors such as weather, or other situations. This clause is understandable given it's quite remarkable and impressive it works at all when you consider Qantas is providing high-speed Internet facilities in a cylinder hurtling at 900km/hour some 10km above the Earth's surface, and I can't even get more than 10Mbps on a copper cable to my home. On that point, my new ViaSat friend was nonchalant that onboard Wi-Fi is an established thing in the US, though again they commented on the far-greater download capabilities Qantas has achieved.

A bit of playing revealed you could make errors and ultimately continue as a guest. While Qantas requested passengers limit themselves to one device at a time, I must confess I signed both my iPad Pro and iPhone into the network.

After signing in, the Qantas Wi-Fi page becomes a portal showing flight information and quite nicely, a flight view mode. One Qantas' project team member explained to me that flight view was a clever feature conceived of, and added, by one of their engineers. Flight view doesn't kick in until the plane has reached 4000 feet.

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While still on the ground, and despite my devices being in flight mode (albeit with Wi-Fi on) I could continue the email and Slack conversations I had been on prior to boarding. My DropBox and Google Photos uploads duly checked in my photos of the experience so far.

That itself was pretty cool, but it was time for metrics, despite still being on the ground. I fired up SpeedTest which revealed ping of 1135ms, download of 19.19Mbps and upload of 0.54Mbps. I performed a second SpeedTest about 30 minutes later when the plane was in the air and everyone else was busy streaming videos. The second SpeedTest showed a ping of 1533ms, download of 10.34Mbps and upload of 0.60Mbps.

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These numbers seemed consistent with the thought of beaming Internet up into space to a satellite, which then sent it back to the ground. Tracing the route, I noticed traffic going to the US before coming back to Australia. All-in-all, my network traffic was taking a route that was about four times the length of the Earth. Recognising this really makes the engineering achievement all the more impressive, particularly with the speed and stability Qantas has achieved.

Experience the takeoff with me.

All was not smooth sailing; connectivity dropped out a couple of times. The ViaSat representative explained this was when switching from one satellite "beam" to another, but further refinements would fix this so the cross-over was hiccup-free. She said both satellites have 101 beams each.

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Enough emailing and tweeting and Slack chat, it was time to try out streaming video. I fired up NetFlix and then Marvel's new Iron Fist series. The time to start playing had a noticeable delay, though this was deliberate. Qantas' testing found if they increased the initial buffering of streaming media it would play back reliably for the duration of the video. Certainly, my experience was the show played in high-quality video and I did not see pixelation or buffering. My ViaSat companion remarked that she preferred 'Love' to Iron Fist, but I continued undeterred.

Using the iPad Pro's split screen feature I worked with Office 365 to edit a Word document and an Excel spreadsheet which a colleague on the ground sent to me. I looked out my window at the Pacific Ocean and remarked on my wonderful, magnificent office in the sky.

This, for me, truly demonstrated the power of in-flight Wi-Fi for business travellers. In fact, even though my phone was in flight mode I still received, and could respond to, iMessages from my iPhone-connected colleagues.

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Qantas made sure we were well-fed during the flight, and I enjoyed seeing the assembled media record their news broadcasts. Some were more successful than others, with Channel 9 finding FaceTime did not work for them, as per Qantas' earlier caveats. You'll find me in the background of Channel 7's coverage, at 21 seconds in. My back also appears in Gizmodo's coverage, showing off my Splunk hoodie.

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David M. Williams participated in the Qantas onboard Wi-Fi launch as a guest of the airline. 

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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