Last year, China announced that it would finally get the ball rolling on in-flight internet access—an area in which the country has been lagging behind. With regulatory approval and billions of dollars committed to making in-flight Wi-Fi a reality in China, it seemed like a better in-flight experience was just around the corner. Now, almost a year after the project was announced with huge fanfare, problems are beginning to mount.
According to recent reports, only three percent of registered airplanes in China are currently capable of offering in-flight internet access. And simply adding the necessary equipment to the remaining 97 percent of airplanes wouldn’t work due to infrastructure constraints, namely a lack of satellites to handle more connected passengers.
For business-people who depend on staying connected and for leisure travelers who want to entertain themselves, in-flight internet access has been a welcome innovation. While often slow and sometimes prohibitively expensive, it has found a significant foothold, especially in the U.S. market. Two of the market leaders, Gogo Inflight Internet and Global Eagle Entertainment, are today valued at $394 million and $235 million respectively, and this even after significant drops in valuation.
Questionable yet sky-high ambitions
Fortunately, China’s government is quite serious about in-flight internet connectivity and sees a lot of value in it.
Last year, it announced a five-year plan for in-flight internet, which it described as a “highly efficient plan with foreseeable outcomes.” The “foreseeable outcome” is to provide internet access to 500 million passengers by 2022.
But for Beijing, there’s much more to in-flight internet than, well, in-flight internet.
Paired with the five-year plan, the investment of 10 billion yuan ($1.45 billion) into a “Belt and Road Inflight Internet Fund” was announced. An even more questionable one trillion-yuan ($145 billion) “In-flight Internet Industrial Park” (yes, really) was also announced.
It’s safe to say that China isn’t pouring ten space stations worth of investment into an in-flight internet-focused industrial park, but it’s clear that Beijing is focusing a lot of investment, top-down, on in-flight internet access.
An in-flight (internet) hangover
Unfortunately, it takes more than buzzwords (belt and road, industrial park…) and expressed ambitions to get something off the ground. In the case of literally getting internet off the ground and to the right altitudes, it takes satellites.
According to recent reports, this is the exact problem that China’s in-flight connectivity ambitions are up against.
China only has one high-throughput communications satellite, ChinaSat 16, that could conceivably handle in-flight internet access. However, according to one insider quoted in Chinese state media, even ChinaSat 16 is subpar. “This satellite is not perfect enough to provide services,” the insider told Global Times.
Instead, the few airplanes in China with in-flight internet access are still relying on traditional satellites, which offer “services too poor to guarantee basic network performance, let alone to help develop innovative business models” according to the industry insider.
In-flight internet with Chinese characteristics for a new era
As people who have flown over China with in-flight Wi-Fi-equipped aircraft may know, internet access always cuts out over China, only to resume as soon as the plane leaves Chinese airspace. Indeed, instead of being an “industrial park” for in-flight internet, China has long remained a black hole for in-flight internet due to regulations that disallow any and all airlines from providing non-Chinese in-flight internet access in Chinese airspace. China has slowly begun to clear international carriers for in-flight internet use, but it still remains the largest internet coverage hole for in-flight internet.
An added challenge for Chinese in-flight internet ambitions is, of course, that it would have to follow Chinese internet laws and regulations, i.e., be behind China’s so-called Great Firewall even though the satellites are wholly separated from the on-ground infrastructure that allows authorities to censor online content and block access to websites.
Internet surveillance is also a government-imposed complication upon the burgeoning in-flight internet industry in China. All information created by passengers connected to in-flight internet on Chinese carriers is required to be stored on servers in China—including information created when the aircraft is outside China’s borders.
While Chinese regulations initially stymied the development of in-flight internet access in China, it’s similarly top-down approach to rolling it out to 500 million passengers in five years also looks to be off to a turbulent start.
Fortunately, there’s enormous untapped demand for the service in China, and China’s airlines are eager to keep pace with international competitors. Many international carriers that fly China routes have in-flight Wi-Fi on close to 100 percent of their aircraft, posing a risk to China’s lagging state-owned airlines as they compete for China’s growing number of international travelers.
When internet access on Chinese aircraft finally does come, the question is if it will leave any international travelers happier. There will be no Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Reddit for leisure travelers looking for entertainment. For business travelers, services like Google’s G Suite, Dropbox, and even Slack will be blocked as well.
Arguably, in-flight Chinese internet is better than no internet at all. Especially for Chinese travelers. For others, maybe it’s a moot point.