Networking

Top 5 things to know about airplane Wi-Fi

With Wi-Fi becoming more readily available during flights, it helps to know what you're signing up for. Tom Merritt tells you five things you need to know about airplane Wi-Fi.

Flying at hundreds of miles per hour in a metal tube can be disconcerting for some people. That's why airplane Wi-Fi is so great—it helps distract you from the obviously impossible thing you're doing. But is airplane Wi-Fi a good idea? Is it worth the sometimes hefty cost? Here are five things to know about airplane Wi-Fi.

SEE: Streaming media policy (Tech Pro Research)

  1. Assume it's not secure. Even secure connections on airplane Wi-Fi have been caught using fake certificates. Think of this connection like a coffee shop or a hotel—a really risky coffee shop or hotel at that. Anybody on the plane could potentially see your data.
  2. Good news: You CAN use a VPN. Most of the time. It's officially supported by Gogo, who provide the majority of Wi-Fi on planes in the US, but people often have trouble getting it to connect, especially if it's not an enterprise-level VPN. Using TCP over port 443 tends to work best for most people.
  3. Streaming video is now possible. Though maybe not always probable. Newer equipment can theoretically get up to 70 Mbps; however, your mileage may vary. I bought the "streaming video" capable connection on a recent flight, and not all video services that I tried worked, though that might be because of whitelisting, as much as speed.
  4. It's available over water. Most airplane Wi-Fi services formerly used ground towers, so where there was no ground, there was no Wi-Fi. Newer services use satellites, so you can now surf the web on that long flight from LA to Tokyo.
  5. It slows your plane down and makes it burn extra fuel. The systems are getting more aerodynamic, so this is less of a problem than it used to be. Just keep in mind that an airplane without a Wi-Fi antenna is that much more fuel efficient.

Now you can get online on the way to your destination, doing what you do best, in the friendly skies.

Note: This marks Tom Merritt's 100th episode of TechRepublic's Top 5.

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Image: Andrii Yurlov, Getty Images/iStockphoto

About Tom Merritt

Tom is an award-winning independent tech podcaster and host of regular tech news and information shows. Tom hosts Sword and Laser, a science fiction and fantasy podcast, and book club with Veronica Belmont. He also hosts Daily Tech News Show, coverin...

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