Sky-high Wi-Fi

Date:1 June 2011 Tags:

Q I recently got the chance to use the Gogo Inflight Internet service during a visit to the US. It worked great through most of the flight, but as we started our descent, it stopped working, and I got a message telling me that the service may not work at altitudes below 10 000 feet (3 000 metres). Why is this?

A Blame the FCC and FAA, which forbid the use of any electronic devices by passengers below 10 000 feet, where they presumably could interfere with ground-based communication or navigation systems. (Whether it’s actually a risk is a topic of much debate, but that’s an argument for another time.) To keep our electronics-craving temptations at bay, Gogo Infl ight Internet is outfi tted with a kill switch of sorts – when a plane dips below this altitude, the Wi-Fi goes kaput.

In case you were wondering, it’s actually pretty cool how in-flight Internet services such as Gogo work. Their sky surfing is facilitated by ground-based cellphone towers that are positioned to broadcast a signal up to the sky rather than across the Earth. The undercarriage of the plane is outfi tted with receivers designed to pick up the signal, which is then pumped out through the cabin over Wi-Fi.

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