Faster Wifi Coming to the Skies

I’ve spent the week here at the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) conference, and it’s been a great show. This group has its roots in traditional inflight entertainment offerings, but this year, it’s connectivity that’s been getting the headlines. Wifi providers are all trying to figure out how to speed things up, add more capacity, and reduce costs. Sounds like a piece of cake.

Wifi on airplanes has been something of a frustrating experience. We’ve been promised that it’ll work (which isn’t always the case), but even when it does it’s not uncommon for it to be really slow. Nobody has been close to offering broadband speeds like you’d see on the ground. That doesn’t mean the wifi providers aren’t trying, but it’s not an easy thing to do. At least they’re making some progress.

Possibly the biggest news on that front this week came from Gogo, provider of wifi to most of the domestic US airlines. Gogo today uses an air-to-ground system and that has some real limitations. If you’ve ever been on a flight with a lot of people using the service, you know it can barely crawl at times. They made a change previously that increased speeds (called ATG-4) but it wasn’t enough. You were still looking at less than 10 mbps to the entire airplane.

Gogo GTO

So now Gogo is rolling out GTO. The idea here is that it will still use air-to-ground transmission from the airplane. But a new antenna will be installed up top that will allow it to receive data back via Ku band satellite. According to Gogo, this will increase the pipe to 60 mbps on the airplane.

Why not just use satellite for everything? After all, if you have to put on a new antenna anyway, what’s the point of using the air-to-ground stuff? Well, air-to-ground is a lot less expensive, so Gogo wants to use that as much as it can. But by doing all upload via the ground and download via satellite, Gogo can use a smaller, lighter antenna to communicate with the satellite than it would otherwise. I guess receiving data is a lot easier than transmitting it.

Now, if you have a ton of people using the system, it’s still going to be slow, but this is way more capacity than you see today so it should make a big difference. The launch customer? Virgin America, of course. It should be up and running by the back half of 2014.

I’ll be curious to hear how many airlines end up installing this. It’ll cost money, you have to pull the airplane out of service for a few days to install the antenna, and that new antenna adds weight and creates drag, albeit less than a standard antenna would. But people want fast internet, and this is one way to achieve that.

But Gogo isn’t the only one speeding things up. JetBlue has been talking about its new wifi offering via subsidiary LiveTV for some time. It just got government approval and the A320s will be getting internet starting shortly. Next up, United’s 737-900s followed by 737-800s. JetBlue’s Embraers will follow next year. This is promised to be very fast, but I’ll reserve judgment until I can try it out for myself.

Row 44, meanwhile, the company that provides inflight internet most notably to Southwest, is busy adding capacity to its network. Some of it is meant to increase speeds but it’s also going to expand the footprint. It just finalized coverage over the Atlantic, for example, and Icelandair is going to begin installing the system.

Overall, demand for wifi just continues to grow. As providers race to grow capacity, we still wait to see if there’s actually a viable business model. The economics of inflight wifi today are tough, but it seems that airlines see this now as a cost of doing business. That’s good for travelers – it means we’ll keep getting more access. In the meantime, you can expect airlines to continue to push hard on suppliers to speed things up while bringing costs down. That’s good news for everyone.

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