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Onboard and Online: A First Test of Nok Air’s New, Free In-Flight WiFi

October 7, 2014
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Never heard of Nok Air? You’re about to—a lot—as the low-cost, Thailand-based airline embraces innovation to soar beyond other airlines, while still keeping ticket prices low and flights fun. We’ve even flown ’em, but this time around we dispatched special correspondent Kinny Cheng to check out their latest news: the arrival of free in-flight WiFi.

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A lover of spectacles, Patee Sarasin, the outspoken CEO of Nok Air, stood and addressed the room overflowing with journalists. His big announcement would mark a first in Asia, and certainly a revolutionary development for Nok, which describes itself as “Thailand’s homegrown premium low-cost airline.”

That announcement? Free In-Flight WiFi. Not only would Nok be the first in Asia, but they’d join a precious few carriers (like JetBlue and Norwegian Air) willing to let their passengers surf the net for free at altitude.

The facts

By mid-October 2014, Nok Bussarakam (translation: “Topaz Bird”)—the airline’s latest Boeing 737-800 delivery, which also features their 10th Anniversary paintjob—will flip the switch on the free service. It will fly just like the others in Nok’s flock, deployed on routes served by the same type of aircraft. View all Nok destinations on their route map.

Nok Air hopes to have another bird similarly hooked up by the end of 2014, with six more expected to offer free WiFi in 2015. It may not be fleet-wide, but it is slowly creeping that way, at least for Nok’s 737s.

Thaicom PLC will be the provider of the free in-flight (broadband) Wi-Fi to Nok Air, enabled by Ku-band satellite connectivity. According to its Chairman and CEO, Suphajee Suthumpun, users can expect 3G-like speeds of up to 8 Mbps.

During the media conference, a demonstration of the system’s capability, in the form of a short FaceTime video call with cabin crew members on Nok Bussarakam enroute to Don Mueang, Bangkok’s older and now-secondary airport, was performed with a considerable level of success.

The test flight

Next up we stepped onboard Nok Bussarakam with 188 other passengers, for the 1.5-hour flight from Bangkok down to Phuket. This gave all attendees the opportunity to personally experience the free inflight Wi-Fi service, while also stress-testing the system because complete random usage by more than 100 people is the only way to truly prove the Wi-Fi’s performance and reliability.

It did take about 15 minutes in the sky to be ready, at which point nearly everyone enabled internet on their smartphones and tablets, logged onto the ‘NokWiFi’ access point, and began surfing and social media-ing.

For us, the first port-of-call was to fire up the Speedtest app to verify speed claims. It clocked Nok’s WiFi speed as an average downlink of just above 7 Mbps, but the corresponding uplink test could not finish because the Wi-Fi slowed as we choked it with Instagram Video postings and the like.

The connection continued to be frail, fraud with time-outs. It was during our pit-stop at Phuket that a Thaicom representative suggested that Speedtest attempts were largely to blame for the system’s inability to serve. While this comment is interesting, it does ring true if many people were doing so at any one time. Later, we’d come to discover that it was actually the fault of some overzealous passengers attempting to stream YouTube. Luckily the Thaicom exec noted that, in preparation for the full roll-out in the middle of October, the onboard systems will be tweaked for optimum speeds and functionality.

So, it’s really FREE?

While “free” may mean no cost involved, the whole truth is ever rarely the case. Yes, you’ll pay nothing for the WiFi service onboard, but don’t depend upon it for much more than casual internet activities.

The “free” inflight Wi-Fi experience with Nok Air was far from exhilarating. Not only was it dysfunctional pretty much for the entire time it was supposedly available for use, expectations were high after that FaceTime call demonstration. Plus, we were all encouraged to use any and all smartphone apps over the inflight Wi-Fi to give it a good run for its money. This opened up a Pandora’s box of usage expectations, which eventually backfired.

Fortunately, people were not up in arms about the whole lackluster experience; this was a show-off press flight, after all, and an excellent learning experience for Nok Air. Hopefully when regular passengers board a Nok 737 enabled with WiFi, they won’t be directed to throw everything they’ve got at the system.

We strongly believe in Sarasin’s desire to open up connectivity in the air to all. Yet, this can come at an immense cost (both intrinsic and extrinsic) to the airline. Offering the means of peer-to-peer communications, via messaging apps and social media services (for example), is a sure-win, not to mention something that the inflight Wi-Fi system will most probably be able to handle, even with a full complement of 189 users. However, encouraging the use of services like video (chat and streaming) may not be a good move at this time. After all, these are services that struggle, at times, even when used over a normal internet connection on the ground.

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