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In-flight Wi-Fi technology advances on two fronts

Companies involved in in-flight Wi-Fi technology announced progress on two fronts last week that eventually will mean more widespread availability and better connections for passengers. And some of that progress relied on sacks of potatoes.

Gogo, the Wi-Fi vendor for several major U.S. airlines, announced that it has signed “milestone” agreements for satellite services that will enable it to provide Internet connections on transatlantic flights for the first time. The original Gogo In-flight Internet product has been available only on flights over land, since it is based on signals from ground-based towers.

The company said it has signed a deal with satellite operator SES that will give it access to satellite-based signals from three orbiting devices—one covering the continental U.S., one over the North Atlantic and one for European airspace. “Gogo has trusted SES to provide both the capacity and network support to enable its expansion over America and the exciting entry into the crucial North Atlantic region and Europe,” said SES executive Ferdinand Kayser.

Meanwhile, Boeing announced a breakthrough in testing the performance of wireless signals aboard passenger aircraft, “making it possible for passengers to enjoy more reliable connectivity when using networked personal electronic devices in the air,” the company said.

The aircraft manufacturer devised the new testing procedure with the help of some very low-tech materials: 20,000 pounds of potatoes.

When measuring how Wi-Fi signals behave on an aircraft loaded with passengers, “The (Boeing) team determined that potatoes were ideal stand-ins for passengers,” the company noted, “given their similar physical interactions with electronic signal properties.” The engineers filled up the seats of the test aircraft with sacks of potatoes to simulate human bodies.

“Once the new method was established, testing that previously took more than two weeks to conduct was reduced to 10 hours,” Boeing said. The testing helps Boeing engineers identify strong and weak signal areas in the cabin “and balance them by adjusting the connectivity system accordingly. The result is increased safety and reliability,” Boeing said.

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