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How does in-flight WiFi work?


Aviation WiFi – how does it work? Are the IPs static and so forth? Specifically as it relates to private aviation and business jets? What happens under the hood? Would the same plane have the same IP or a different one each time it flies? How secure are they? Anything else you can think of?

In this excerpt from Answercast #83, I look at the safety in using in-flight internet service provided by aircraft and airlines.

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In-flight WiFi

To be honest, I don’t know the specifics of the technology. I don’t know that a plane would have an IP address or that several planes wouldn’t be sharing an IP address.

The computers that are connected to the internet in-flight typically have their own IP address in order to work on the internet. Whether that’s a direct IP address on the internet or a local IP address because you’re behind some kind of a NAT router; again, I don’t know – could be either way. It depends on how that particular technology, used by that particular airline or provider, happens to be implemented.

I could see it being done in several different ways to make things work.

In-flight WiFi is an open network

The reason that I wanted to address this question is that I wanted to make sure that everyone realizes that in-flight WiFi is exactly the same as open WiFi in a coffee house or other open hotspot. In other words, it’s not secure.

You need to understand what you’re getting when you get free WiFi, or WiFi in-flight, even if you’re paying for it. The hotspot itself that is in the aircraft is an open hotspot that is not using WEP; it is not using WPA.

What you transmit between your laptop and the hotspot is sent in the clear – and could be sniffed by anybody else with a laptop in that aircraft. Just like in an open WiFi in a coffee shop.

And as a result, all of the precautions we would take when using a laptop in an open WiFi hotspot situation apply to in-flight WiFi as well:

  • Make sure your connections are https for anything secure.
  • Use a Virtual Private Network if you need to for secure connections – for things that aren’t otherwise https.
  • Use SSL when you are downloading or accessing email in your email programs and so forth.

Check out, “How do I stay safe in an internet café?” or “How do I use an open WiFi hotspot safely?” for more tips. The point is that you must, must, must consider the aircraft’s WiFi exactly the same as an unsecured open WiFi hotspot.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Next from Answercast 83 – Why can’t I write any files to my C: drive?

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