Whenever I end up on a flight that offers internet service, I can't help but buy it. Despite being in relatively early stages and a fairly poor state, in-flight Wi-Fi is one of the most "futuristic" technologies I interact with on a regular basis.
So when a friend told me his service was suspended mid-air on his recent flight from Los Angeles to Texas due to "government restrictions," I was very intrigued.
He wasn't the only one who had noticed. A writer for the commercial aviation publication Airways News wrote in 2014 that the in-flight Wi-Fi on that aircraft, a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, cuts out due to "government restrictions" in the area near White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the same zone where my friend lost his connection.
The White Sands Missile Range is a 3,200 square mile rocket range in the middle of the New Mexico desert where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945. Known as the "Birthplace of America's Missile and Space Activity," it is operated by the US Army and serves as testing grounds for a variety of private and public organizations, including NASA, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and border control and homeland security operations.
Which of these institutions could be interfering with in-flight Wi-Fi? I started to investigate.
In-flight Wi-Fi works in one of two ways: through air-to-ground or satellite connection. The air-to-ground method, used by top supplier Gogo, is the cheaper option to install and works by connecting to various mobile broadband cell towers on the ground throughout the flight.
Satellite connection, used on the United Airlines flight in question, provides a connection through L-band, Ku-band, or Ka-band frequencies. The aircraft connects to the internet through antennas leased on satellites in orbit around Earth, like in the global Ku-band satellite-based network Panasonic Avionics' eXConnect that powers United's Wi-Fi. A United spokesperson confirmed to me the airline is "not permitted to operate Ku-band frequency over [White Sands] due to government restrictions" but declined to elaborate.
I reached out to staff at the White Sands Missile Range itself, where a very responsive, though not all that helpful spokesperson told me, "It would be impossible for me to pinpoint any one activity that might have had an impact on that particular flight," and added, "Please note that all operations are coordinated with the FAA so as not to cause any interference with the safety of commercial airlines in the area."
According to that spokesperson, three military installations as well as border patrol and homeland security agencies are active within the area. They told me the best agency to contact about Wi-Fi connectivity would be the FCC. That agency declined requests for comment.
At this point, I had been trying to figure out for several days why in-flight Wi-Fi would be disabled over this one area. It seemed that if neither the FCC or White Sands itself could (or would) tell me why service was suspended, this mission could be more difficult than I thought.
It was eventually suggested I check with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to see if the Wi-Fi interruption had anything to do with Kitt Peak, an astronomical observatory the NSF manages in the the Quinlan Mountains in the Arizona Desert. An NSF spokesperson told me the Kitt Peak was about 350 miles away from the flight path I was looking into, too far to make an impact on that particular aircraft's Wi-Fi. She added that even if the route were closer to Kitt Peak, the observatory's activity should not affect airline Wi-Fi.
"NRAO (inclusive of the Very Large Array in New Mexico and Very Large Baseline Array in Arizona) does not impact airborne radio transmissions, nor is NRAO aware of any efforts in that direction," she said. "The system used on these flights connects to transponders at 800MHz on cell phone towers. In sparsely populated areas such as where telescopes and military installations are located, cell phone coverage is spotty and the planes can have difficulty."
I kept looking into the other organizations with active operations in the White Sands Missile Range, continuing with NASA. Through a tip from my friend who noticed the outage to begin with, I discovered what may be the key to the Wi-Fi mystery buried in a 2013 FCC notice, which requested comment on the expansion of in-flight Wi-Fi.
The document states that the in-flight Wi-Fi, which would run at a 14.0-14.5 GHz, would overlap with the 14.0-14.05 GHz band frequencies of NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite Project (TDRS) system in several specific places: a facility in Guam, a proposed facility in at Blossom Point in Maryland, and at White Sands Missile Range.
TDRS is a program that NASA established in 1973 with the goal of improving communication services to low Earth-orbiting missions, allowing it to expand its Space Network, the system that NASA uses to communicate with its space probes. This request for comment showed that wireless telecommunications company Qualcomm, which was proposing the potential expanded service, had analyzed how to avoid interfering with TDRS ahead of the FCC's paper.
"Qualcomm presents a detailed analysis of how its system would avoid interference to TDRSS sites from both base stations and airborne stations through a combination of technical parameters, siting of air-ground mobile broadband base stations, and avoiding operating in the areas immediately around TDRSS sites," the document said.
I reached out to NASA to confirm—could its satellite system be the reason airline passengers have to remain off the grid, technically, for a solid 30 minutes of flight time? A NASA spokesperson told me by email that this was in fact the case.
From these documents, it appears your ability to tweet on an airplane could interfere with a distant space mission or spy satellites
"NASA has an MOU [Memorandum of understanding] with aircraft Internet service providers about not interfering with the Track and Data Satellite (TDRS) network when in the White Sands vicinity," the spokesperson said. "These Wi-Fi providers take preventive measure to insure there is no interference when aircraft are flying over the White Sands area."
Mystery solved! But I felt questions still nagging at me. What exactly would the Wi-Fi interfere with?
In the same documents, Qualcomm says its Wi-Fi would not cause disruption for more than one second, but still suggested a geofence of 70 km around the area in question to avoid "harmful interference."
"Even though the interference event would last a very short time (less than a second), this level of interference may not be acceptable to TDRSS operations," it said.
Although TDRSS operations were purportedly created to communicate with spacecraft, enabling missions like the Hubble Telescope, a document declassified by the National Reconnaissance Office in 2008 revealed the White Sands Missile range is one of several stations responsible for "supporting worldwide defense operations and multi-agency collection, analysis, reporting, and dissemination of intelligence information."
Three stations, including White Sands, the Aerospace Data Facility in Colorado and another station in Fort Belvoir, Virginia are responsible for collection and analysis of information from reconnaissance satellites used for defense and intelligence agencies. All other facts about these satellites' operations in relation to spying operations remain classified, according the document.
It isn't clear which services specifically would be disrupted due to in-flight Wi-Fi, but from these documents, it appears your ability to tweet on an airplane could interfere with a distant space mission or spy satellites. And whatever that data consists of, an interference of less than one second is considered "harmful."
Although the mystery is technically solved, the nature of the data being collected is still unknown, and the quest to find it underscores the uncharted side of government surveillance that can be unveiled as technology like this expands to the public.
If you have any theories, please contact me. I'm not letting this one go anytime soon.