Hopefully live streaming content will be easier at 30,000 feet – Photo: AirlineReporter
Imagine someone took your iPhone and disabled LTE. Annoying. Then they shut off 4G. Super annoying. Then they took your remaining 3G connection and split it up between you and 160 of your closest friends. Welcome to the complicated world in-flight WiFi.
In-flight WiFi quickly transitioned from a magical new technology that few people had any reason to use, to a near-ubiquitous amenity that passengers demand on every flight. A victim of its own success, in-flight WiFi is now often incredibly expensive and annoyingly slow. How did we get here, and what is being done about it?
A worker climbs a Gogo cell tower, one of over 250 across North America – Photo: Gogo
When Gogo launched its air-to-ground network with American Airlines in August 2008, just one month after the iPhone 3G went on sale, most people probably didn’t have a data plan. Heck, most people didn’t even own a smartphone yet. Web use at the time was relatively light and didn’t require much bandwidth.
As more and more airlines installed the original Gogo ATG system, it became evident over time that the 3G connection shared by all passengers on board a flight was becoming impractical. Data demands grew exponentially year after year, but changes in the aerospace industry happen slowly and require lengthy regulatory approval processes. It would be years before Gogo could deploy something better.
In 2012, Gogo launched ATG-4, an upgraded version of the original ATG network that tripled data speeds to 9.8 Mbps. ATG-4 is an improvement, but it still doesn’t support streaming video or other bandwidth intensive uses. It’s far from the experience you get at home. In September 2016, multiple airlines are still upgrading their hundreds of aircraft with the original ATG equipment to ATG-4, but it isn’t nearly enough. Gogo still has to charge insane prices to keep usage low so the connection works for the few who do pay for it.
Gogo’s fancy new “blade” antenna for its upcoming next-gen LTE WiFi service – Photo: Gogo
So, what now? It’s time for Gogo to start from scratch, that’s what. Gogo has reached the maximum possible speeds for its original licensed network, so it is about to start building out an entirely new network using LTE and unlicensed spectrum. Gogo is claiming data speeds of over 100 Mbps, which is roughly 30x faster than ATG. For airlines already operating ATG-4, the upgrade can happen overnight and simply requires some equipment to be changed out. But with thousands of aircraft operating on the original ATG networks, it will take years to retrofit them all, and it won’t start until 2018.
Gogo’s 737-500, N321GG a.k.a. the “Jimmy Ray.”
Meanwhile, Gogo also has a couple of satellite technologies in place that don’t use the ATG network at all. Its most high tech system currently available is called 2Ku, which is fast enough to allow streaming video and can work globally. While the ATG and upcoming LTE networks only require small and inexpensive equipment, it will only work over ground. It’s an ideal solution for regional jets that may never leave the continent, but even your run of the mill Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 will head out into the Caribbean or Pacific and drop out of coverage pretty frequently.
Global Eagle’s vintage 1952 Grumman Albatross test plane – Photo: Jason Rabinowitz.
Today, Gogo is far from the only game in town. Panasonic, ViaSat, Global Eagle, Inmarsat, Deutsche Telekom and others are all quickly signing new airlines for their advanced WiFi systems, while some existing Gogo customers have begun shopping around for a new provider. Competition is fierce, and any provider that sits idle won’t last long.
Only time will tell if Gogo can stay ahead of the data demand curve, but this time it knows what battle it’s getting into. The demand for data is growing faster than anyone could have imagined in 2008, but the mission in 2016 is clear and Gogo knows it is far from the only game this time around.