Singapore Airlines is progressively introducing inflight wifi on its fleet of A380s and B777-300-ERs, and it was available on a recent flight I took, SQ11, from LAX to Changi via Narita. It is a service provided by OnAir, currently used by 18 airlines that also include Aeroflot, British Airways, Emirates, All Nippon Airways, Qatar Airways and TAM.
I found out that onboard wifi was available after I had settled into my seat, as I was getting ready to switch my phone to airplane mode and turn it off. “OnAir” was shown on the list of wifi networks. After the seatbelt sign was off, electronic devices were allowed to be on in airplane mode. To access the wifi I had to manually turn wifi capability back on. Curiously, OnAir couldn’t be detected anymore and I asked one of the crew members if the service was indeed available. I was told that signal may have been down momentarily and that I should try again later.
There was no urgent need for me to use it, so I left it until I woke up from sleep eight hours into the 10 hours and 50 minutes leg to Narita. The signal was on again and I clicked on it. There was no auto-prompt to direct me to the OnAir web portal so I opened Safari. What came on was a white page with one line directing me to go to onboard.onair.aero, but it did not take me there automatically and I had to enter the address manually.
I was given two price plans: US$5.99 for five MB and US$9.9 for 10 MB. I clicked on the former and was then taken to another page where I created an account and entered my credit card information. I was again given options – to have the wifi disconnected automatically once my data limit was used up or allow US$0.15 to be charged for every 100k of extra data used. I chose the former and was then all set to surf.
The first thing I did was Whatsapp. As conventional wisdom would have it, text used up much less data than images, and my estimate was if I stuck with text messages, my 5MB could last for hours. The same applied to Skype, and the speed of connection was more than sufficient and it felt just like land wifi. I sent one picture to my friend through Whatsapp and as my version of the app automatically compresses image files before it sends them out, it did not use up much of the data limit (around 50k). Not surprisingly Facebook ate up the quota more quickly because of the push notifications and although it compresses uploaded images to 72dpi, it is still rather a lot of data usage if you are only limited to 5MB. I was on Facebook for less than 10 minutes before my data limit was used up.
I had not tested Skype calls with the onboard wifi, but according to Skype, one minute of voice calling consumes 3MB, so I would guess 5MB would give you 100 minutes. Video calls on Skype consume 500-600kb per second, so you do the maths.
VERDICT: Other than not being able to detect the network during the first part of the flight, I found the wifi very user-friendly once I was online. In fact, the speed and consistency of connection were better than some of the hotel wifi I have used. The price was very reasonable, and if one is to only use it for email and texting, 5MB is sufficient.
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