If you find yourself trying to work on the plane, but struggling to get websites to load, you’re not alone. Inflight wi-fi is notoriously bad—like “dial-up speeds” bad.
There are a couple of reasons for this phenomenon. The first of these is the technology that allows inflight wi-fi. Signals come from, and return to, satellites or cell phone towers, all while moving at hundreds of miles per hour and at an altitude of 30,000 feet or more. This causes a lot of lag in processing.
The second of these is that modern websites often contain a lot of images and special fonts which need to be loaded from a separate source (Google’s servers, for example, if a website is using Google Fonts). You may not notice any lag due to these issues when you’re viewing a website on your cable modem at home, but when combined with the signal lag produced by the technology of inflight wi-fi, it causes poor performance.
But a team of researchers at Northwestern University, led by computer engineer Fabián Bustamante, has developed a plugin called ScaleUp that aims to solve the problem, and it’s getting results too.
The solution is deceptively simple. The plugin enlarges images, doesn’t load various fonts, and makes text bigger. The result is that the images are pushed to the bottom of a web page and therefore load after text. By not calling for the special fonts, the browser will load a website using default system fonts instead. The larger text also helps push images farther down the page.
Bustamante used ScaleUp to load a page on CNN’s website. It drew the page four times faster than the page would have loaded without the extension, and it saved 60 seconds in doing so.
“It wasn’t something we expected to turn out as well as it did,” said James Newman, a doctoral candidate working with Bustamante on ScaleUp. “The improvements we’re seeing are better than what you would normally see.”
Bustamante says he is developing relationships with inflight internet providers, in hopes of collecting more data on how well ScaleUp works in actual conditions.
One other issue that they’ve noticed with inflight browser speeds is packet loss. Packets are bits of data which are transmitted to your computer so it can load a website. A site can’t load until a browser receives all the packets, so when there is packet loss, it slows the site’s load time because the site is resending the packets until they get through. The researchers are not entirely sure why packet loss happens, and there are likely plenty of reasons, but by further understanding packet loss, they’re hoping to make inflight browsing, and web use in generally, even faster and more reliable.
“While we know some of the factors behind the loss, we need to better understand all of the reasons causing the problem,” Bustamante said.
At this time, ScaleUp is only available as an extension on the Chrome browser. Given its success, we assume Bustamante and his team will build versions of the extension that work with other browsers.