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Norwegian Air's WiFi
Norwegian Air Shuttle was the first airline to launch free in-flight WiFi in 2011 on its European routes. During those days, free WiFi was a clear advantage of Norwegian against its competitors - other low-cost airlines even traditional airlines. Majority of airlines didn't have any kind of in-flight internet connection, not free nor paid one. Even though, Norwegian's free WiFi didn't always work well, people were happy to experience complimentary connectivity on their holiday and business trips.
Now 8 years have gone and Norwegian still has its free in-flight WiFi. Meanwhile, other airlines have introduced WiFi services on their short and long-haul flights so Norwegian can't anymore keep the recognition for itself with this free in-flight WiFi. However, almost all other airlines are charging a small fee for WiFi usage but Norwegian continues to offer the basic service free of charge.
Norwegian's original WiFi service has been criticized to be low-quality and probably that is probably the reason why Norwegian has finally introduced Premium WiFi. Premium services are paid extras while the basic WiFi stays still totally free.
Aircraft Equipped with WiFi
WiFi systems have been installed to the majority of Norwegian's Boeing 737-800 fleet. Installations for long-haul fleet are going on and soon Norwegian's Boeing 787 Dreamliner and 737 MAX aircraft have their WiFi systems installed.
How In-Flight WiFi Works?
Inside the airplane's cabin, there are WiFi base stations to which users' devices connect. From the aircraft, the traffic is tunneled to the ground station via satellite connections and from the ground station finally to the public internet. The satellite connection is the most complex part of the system. This is because the satellites and the plane itself are moving with high velocity and continuous satellite antenna adjustments are needed.
Usually in the cabin, there is also a proxy that keeps a cache inside the plane. By the aid of the proxy, the same information is not needed to transfer between the plane and the internet multiple times but the plane's proxy can keep its own copies of popular content. Also, the captive portal is located inside the plane. The captive portal shows users the web page where Premium WiFi can be purchased and also flight status information can be accessed from it.
WiFi Service Levels
Norwegian's new WiFi service has 3 different levels: a free basic version and two paid options.
Surf: the Basic WiFi
The basic and free WiFi is called Surf and it is almost like Norwegian's original WiFi service. Everyone can use Surf without paying a service fee. According to Norwegian, this level's connection speed is slower and meant only for web browsing. Streaming and social media are not allowed.
Compared to the Norwegian's original free WiFi service launched 8 years ago, the new free WiFi is worse. Social media and streaming platforms have been blocked by a firewall and according to our experiences, sending photos via Facebook Messenger application does not work well. However, we didn't experience any problem while using WhatsApp for image sending.
Social+Surf: Middle Level Premium WiFi
Social+Surf package is the first chargeable option. It is like the basic WiFi service but it is promised to be faster and social media platforms are accessible with it.
Norwegian is not telling what faster actually means so at the end there is no bandwidth guarantee.
Stream+Surf: The Best Package
The best WiFi level is called Stream+Surf. The service's description is unclear and we didn't know if it included streaming music or movies from Norwegian's own collection or from public sources like from YouTube.
Our Experiences with Norwegian's WiFi
We flew from Helsinki to Split with Norwegian's Boeing 737-800 aircraft that had new WiFi services installed. We tested the free basic WiFi and also the Surf+Social Plan that cost 5 euros for the whole duration of the flight. The prices will most likely differ depending on the route length. Compared to other airlines, 5 euros is quite inexpensive price.
Remarks about the Basic WiFi
The basic and free WiFi worked badly. It was really slow and there were long moments when the internet connection was totally interrupted. Social media and streaming platforms were blocked as we were expecting.
Instant messaging with WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger worked well but with some transmission delay. However, we were not able to send or receive images with Facebook Messenger application.
Surf Plan can be recommended only for non-urgent messaging and email sending. Web browsing is possible but it is frustratingly slow because the connection is unstable.
Remarks about Social+Surf Plan
We also bought Surf+Social Plan with 5 euros.
Norwegian promises its service level to be faster but unfortunately Norwegian does not not promise it to be fast. According to our experiences, the service was faster but still slow. Surfing on the web was uncomfortably slow but it worked all the time with the same quality. There were not any interruptions in contrast to the basic plan. Social media platforms were accessible as promised.
There were a few surprises. For example, the web pages of Finnish Broadcasting Company yle.fi were blocked even though the pages are only full of news. Google's collaboration tools like Google Docs and Google Sheet didn't work. It seems firewall rules have been configured incorrectly.
Social+Surf level can be recommended for more active surfing but for active working it isn't the best one. It is still quite slow and there seem to be many useful services blocked.
Remarks about Stream+Surf
This service would have cost 12 euros and we didn't want to pay that much to get access to streaming services. Norwegian promises this level to be faster but not fast. If you have tested this level, please comment below about your experiences.
The user experience is probably the most important metric for internet connectivity but we made also a few simple technical measurements to see if the results match with our own experiences. We were expecting somehow bad numbers after realizing the user experience isn't good.
Firstly, we tested downloading speed with a few speed metering services on the internet. The results varied between 0,2 Mbit/s and 3,10 Mbit/s. Downstream speeds below 1 Mbit/s are poor for any kind of use except simple messaging. For comparison, we have made similar tests in Finnair's plane and we got stable 15 Mbit/s download rate.
We tested also the upload rate. It varied between 0 and 0,1 Mbit/s that is really low. It is common that upstream rates are lower but this low rate will surely affect the user experience.
Finally we measured the connection delay which tells how fast the user can expect any kind of reply from servers. According to our measurements the lowest delay way about 400ms (about half second). This is the shortest time how long it takes you to get any reply from a server no matter what service you are using. Because the airplane's internet connection uses satellites, the delay is always highly probable. Good quality home internet connections have a delay of 10 to 20 ms but when using satellites, the delay is unfortunately always high. This is something that can't be easily improved when using satellite technology. The connection speed user feels depends on the delay and the available bandwidth.
Our technical measurements were simple but it seems that available bandwidth between the internet and the plane is really low. It is not high enough for a good user experience. We feel that the Premium WiFi is still too cheap and there are too many concurrent WiFi users. The whole plane shares the same bandwidth. The more users online, the worse the browsing quality experience will be.
To be honest, nobody should expect any airline to offer really good quality internet connectivity. As long as the connection is using satellites, the connection delay stays high which affect user experience. Also the whole plane usually has much less bandwidth than a single mobile phone on the ground has.
Before we made the purchase decision, there was a disclaimer telling that because the WiFi system is complex, its quality may sometimes be bad. For us, this sounds like an excuse. Norwegian should openly tell all the important parameters of the connection no matter how good or bad they are.
We have tested similar WiFi service on Finnair's short-haul flight in Airbus A321 and Finnair's WiFi worked better. Before the purchase decision, Finnair was sharing facts about the gaps in satellite coverage area. The user gets well-informed what to expect and when to expect communication breaks.
Flight Information via WiFi
A nice extra about Norwegian's WiFi is that you will get real-time flight information to your mobile phone. You can see the plane's speed, altitude and heading. Also the location is shared on the map and the estimated remaining flight time. This service works also really fast because all the data comes directly from the plane's own systems.
Is Norwegian's Premium WiFi Worth the Money?
If you really need a stable internet connection during a flight, you should buy premium WiFi service. It is more stable than the free plan. However, Premium WiFi's quality isn't especially good but it is good enough for simple working. When there is a real need for the internet, Premium WiFi will be worth the money.
If you just prefer doing random web browsing and sending instant messages, the premium WiFi does not make sense. It is not good enough and the free basic version is sufficient then.
Have you tested Norwegian's WiFi during your flight? How was your experience?