Review: Etihad’s Ku-band connectivity

Etihad Wi-Fly screen
Etihad Wi-Fly screen

I was lucky enough to fly on an Etihad Boeing 777-300 from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi yesterday (Flight EY12/22 Feb.), en-route to the city’s Air Expo where I am working for Arabian Aerospace this week.

It was an ideal opportunity to test Etihad’s Wi-Fi Internet connectivity. Called Etihad Wi-Fly, it uses Panasonic’s inflight Internet and mobile connectivity service, powered by the company’s Global Communications Suite, although there is no Panasonic branding anywhere that I could see.

The link to and from the ground is via a Ku-band satellite connection and inflight telephony is also available via Aeromobile at international roaming rates, although I didn’t test this.

I used an iPad Mini for the tests and the Wi-Fi connection was seamless and easy. The system billing is taken care of by T-Mobile (Deutsche Telekom), with the user having the opportunity to buy the service on a “time” basis rather than “per Megabyte”. I prefer this as you know exactly where you stand in terms of cost.

You can read more about Deutsche Telekom’s partnership with Panasonic in a feature I have written for the next issue of Inflight magazine.

T-Mobile log-in and payment screen
T-Mobile log-in and payment screen

The portal offered the choice of two hours ($11.95), four hours ($17.95) or a “Flight Pass” for $21.95.

I opted for the two-hour option and duly entered my credit card details. The only problem I hit was the the system didn’t like my choice of password, but after some head-scratching it turned out that it needed to have a capital letter included (something the pop-up menu does explain if you bother to look!).

Having sorted that out I was up and running. The invoice for $11.95 (about £7.19) was delivered via email, inclusive of 19% VAT (which appears to be the VAT rate for Germany).

Downloading email was fine and dandy, as was basic web surfing. But what you really want to know is just how fast was it? Using a speed testing utility on the iPad I did three tests at 15-minute intervals while somewhere over the Arabian Gulf close to Qatar.

Speed tests on the iPad Mini
Speed tests on the iPad Mini

The first showed an upload speed of 0.45 Mbps and a download of 0.34 Mbps. The second was 0.41 Mbps up/0.19 Mbps down and the third 0.37 Mbps up and 0.51 Mbps down.

At one point during the tests I saw the download speed get close to 1 Mbps momentarily.

This was not quite the headline “Multi-Megabit” connectivity speeds you might expect for a Ku-band link, but we have to factor in some unknowns – how many users were active on the aircraft and how many aircraft (or other users) were accessing the satellite at the same time – the so-called contention ratio.

This flight was completely full, although I obviously have no idea how many passengers were using the connection.

I’ve provided the actual “real-life” speeds I experienced, which are usually more meaningful than headline figures. A different flight on a different day with a different satellite could give very different results.

Actually, the speeds were better than I achieved in a Hilton hotel the night before the flight!

Ping times to servers in London and New York were all roughly 1000-1100 milliseconds. This is understandable as the signals have to go up to a geostationary satellite, down to ground and then across the internet.

The satellite round trip alone is about 71,500 km (44,500m), which takes about a quarter of a second for radio waves travelling at the speed of light.

Add in the internet connection, processing time for routers, switches and signal processing points along the route and satellite and you get the one second latency.

Overall then, I found the Wi-Fly service to be fine for emails and surfing. Tests using a standard definition three-minute YouTube video showed some hesitancy as the download streaming speed failed to keep up with the demand, but this was by no means poor and at one point I did get 45 seconds of video with no interruption.

It is also worth saying that the IFE in economy class was excellent with a wide range of on-demand movies, TV and audio delivered to a quality 12-inch touch-sensitive screen. The seat-back also had USB, Ethernet and 110v power, plus what looked like an S-video input socket.

I did a review of Etihad’s IFEC offering in business class in Inflight magazine a few issues ago.

Would I use the Wi-Fi service again? Absolutely – I think the pricing was fair and the speed, while not Ferrari-like, was adequate for the tasks I needed it for.

Steve Nichols

 

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