Delta Makes a Big Investment in Improving Wifi Speed and Coverage

Delta, Inflight Entertainment

Delta announced yesterday that it would be making big investments in improving its wifi speed and coverage. This, of course, is good news. But it’s also a very interesting indicator of how important wifi is becoming. This isn’t just an investment in adding wifi. It’s an investment in replacing older systems.

Delta New Wifi

Delta was one of the first to opt for fleetwide wifi years ago. It chose Gogo’s air-to-ground system, probably because it got a great deal on it. Gogo was eager to get airlines onboard, but the air-to-ground system is cheaper and faster to install as well. With usage numbers relatively low, this seemed like the easiest and most painless way to check the “wifi” box on the list of things to do.

The air-to-ground system isn’t really all that robust in terms of bandwidth so as more airplanes got the system and more people started using it, speeds slowed down. Gogo came up with increasingly creative solutions including ATG-4 and eventually a hybrid (GTO) with partial satellite connectivity. That helped with capacity but there was always one nagging issue. When you rely on ground stations, you can’t get coverage over the water.

For domestic airplanes, that wasn’t a huge issue… if they didn’t go to Hawai’i. Or if they didn’t fly routes over the water (lots of places to Florida from the north and west). And of course, many of these airplanes weren’t confined to domestic flights anyway. They’d go on other missions to the Caribbean or Latin America where the wifi was unusable.

This wasn’t originally a huge issue, because hey, it was something. But then other airlines starting leapfrogging. United benefited from being a complete and total slacker. By the time it decided to go with wifi, it opted for a satellite system. The rollout has been slow though. If you’re on an A319, A320, 737-900, or 747, you’ll get it. Otherwise it’s a bit of a crapshoot.

JetBlue, also a slacker, has been talking about how fast and incredible its satellite system is. All its A321s have it and 70 percent of the A320s do. The Embraers? None. But it will get there.

Of course, these were all initial installs. They evaluated what was in the market at the time they decided to move forward and chose what they felt was best. While we have seen some airlines like Virgin America opt for upgraded systems, I don’t recall seeing anyone do what Delta is doing. It’s going to strip the antennas of 250+ airplanes and put a new system onboard.

Delta is still going to be using Gogo as its provider, but it’s going to ditch the air-to-ground system and instead start using satellites on its narrowbodies that fly overwater and on longer haul flights. Gogo’s 2Ku system is supposed to get 70 Mbps to the airplane (and will eventually get up to 100 MBps). Compare that to Gogo’s original system which brought in a paltry 3.1 Mbps and it’s a huge difference. (It’s also faster then the Ku system Delta will have finished putting on its widebodies by next summer, though that’s still light years ahead of Gogo’s original air-to-ground system.)

The fleets that are getting the upgrade? Well, it’s all the 757s (-200s and -300s), 737-800s and -900s, and A319s. Why those airplanes? Well, the 757s fly longer haul domestic including Hawai’i routes. The 737s and A319s do longer haul domestic but also go into the Caribbean and Latin America a lot. Those are all areas that don’t have coverage today. This will start in 2016 and probably take a couple years to complete.

Delta also got a bit mysterious when talking about its MD-80, MD-90, and 717 fleets. It says it will keep the air-to-ground system on those, but it will be “upgraded with Gogo’s next generation air-to-ground technology as it becomes available.” That will take a few years, but hey, I guess that means those fleets will be around for awhile.

You may have noticed a couple of fleets missing. There’s no mention of the sad A320 fleet. That one isn’t getting the same bells and whistles as the A319 (which, remember, is also getting inflight entertainment), and it’s expected to fly shorter routes. According to Delta, no decision has been made on what to do with that fleet in terms of wifi, but to me it sounds like its days are numbered. Only 8 of the aircraft are less than 15 years old, so maybe it will start riding into the sunset. Or maybe I’m reading too much into things.

The other fleet not mentioned is the small 10 aircraft 737-700 fleet. Those were picked up for specific longer routes, but I’m guessing Delta would be happy to see them gone. The regionals are not impacted by this announcement, but that doesn’t mean things won’t change in the future with those.

Forget about the things that aren’t changing, though. The fact that so many of these airplanes are getting big upgrades is a big deal. And it’s good news for travelers.

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28 comments on “Delta Makes a Big Investment in Improving Wifi Speed and Coverage

  1. Dear Delta: I don’t care for wifi during a flight unless you give it to me for free. I don’t have a corporate account that covers the cost.

    I care about seat comfort, and seat comfort alone. Oh, and a good safety record and on-time arrivals and departures. And kind/actually caring FA’s. I’ll tweet or instagram about my inflight experience when I’m back on the ground.

    1. agreed. Old GoGo was sufficient. Perhaps they should restore the snack boxes (since my last few flights have had only one option – nuts in both F and Y).

    2. Part of the reason people don’t pay for it is because it is slow to the point where streaming services (which is the holy grail of what people want while they are flying) are not available at those speeds. If speed is bumped up significantly and streaming services are allowed, people are going to take advantage of the Wifi because then they won’t have to spend extra money ahead of time to download non-streaming movies/TV shows. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if airlines start partnering with streaming services to allow their subscribers to access the services for free while traveling. I can definitely see a premium service such as HBO partnering to allow its subscribers to have access while on the plane.

      1. I could see this type of access, but I’d bet it’d be a limited subset of HBO’s or Netflix’s content which is why we probably haven’t seen this happen.

        Streaming is still a good chunk of data, and that 70 Mbps and then 100 Mbps won’t spread out that well. If 10% of the passengers on a 757 pay for wifi, people have a 3.5Mbps or 5Mbps connection, which is currently classified as broadband in the US, but won’t be for long. If that goes to 20% of passengers its 1.75Mbps or 2.5Mbps which still isn’t broadband in the US in the US.

        Streaming In Air content will have to be hosted on the plane. I can see Netflix putting a 100TB appliance onboard and offering Netflix in the Air. But streaming the video over the satellite link? Oh no.

        There also is the technical question of how to update the media onboard. I’d guess the might do some streaming during the evening, and it could be setup so that one stream reloads all of the devices… But this is a technical hurdle to work through, and one that isn’t cheap.

  2. It is funny since I thought JetBlue was first in the air with wifi that never expanded. That crappy service on BetaBlue with the giant Blackberry and Yahoo partnership and logo stickers on the side of the plane – my have times changed in both industries!

    1. larry – Well, it’s a small subfleet that I doubt they still need. The A319s should probably be able to handle most of those missions. But the only reason I say it is because they didn’t include those in this round of enhancements at all.

      1. I thought the 737-700 had the advantage of a larger engine and larger brakes for short or high runways where extra power was needed. I flew this plane into EYW and they were able to both land and get off the ground on the 4800′ runway with no issue. I’m not sure if there is any other airport that is the 737-700’s range that needs that capability or if another aicraft can carry 120 people and land at EYW.

        1. southbay flier – It does, but the A319 can serve many of these missions.
          In fact, Delta flies a 319 into Key West sometimes, including today.

  3. The most interesting part of this story is what these changes tell us about Delta’s fleet plans. A320’s not long for this world? Replaced with? Now that’s what I’d rather know, speculate about.

    Faster wi-fi and having it available over water is nice for some business travelers that have corporate accounts but as I recall the vast majority still balk at paying for it. Even on the corporate side I had an employer that did pay and now am with one that will not so it’s not an across the board buy in from the high value corporate travelers.

    Personally I think Delta could push themselves further ahead of the competition by improving other on board products first.

    1. Yeah I’m curious to know why the age of the 320s is concerning to DL when they have much older planes in the fleet that are staying.

    2. A – The A320 replacements are already in the fleet. The 737-800s and -900s handle that just fine.

      And Tatum – I have no idea if the age is concerning. But maybe they’re coming off lease. Or maybe it’s time for an expensive heavy check. They don’t necessarily need the 320 fleet for the missions they serve.

  4. One reaon I like flying DL is knowing that any plane with > 50 seats has wifi. Even, if I’m not doing work, I like to look at stuff on the internet and text people from the air. It’s a great way to kill time.

  5. Re: the A320s leaving the fleet.

    I’m curious how common the inflight internet equipment is between different types… Here’s why I ask:
    In Seattle they put a new modern ADA compliant announcement and computer system in buses that’ll be retired in 3 years. (but should’ve been retired 5 years ago) I fully expect that as those buses are decommissioned they’ll tear out those systems and put them in the new buses that are arriving into the fleet. There will be some parts that just are left (wiring) but the expensive parts will move.

    So does this work with onboard internet in airplanes? If they outfit the new system on the A320s, can they later tear the parts out and reuse them on a new 737? (or perhaps a new 757 like my first freudian slip typo if gets their way.) Or is the system specific to an A320 and there aren’t reusable parts that could be used on a 737 or a new 717? I know they systems are certified on a specific airframe, but I’m not sure if that means the system is different between a 737 and a A320 with no reusable parts..

    1. Nick – I would assume that many parts are reusable. The antenna should be the same though the housing is probably different. And the onboard equipment should be the same.

  6. What about the intercontinental flights? One would think that would be the first place to put the Sat WiFi. I took the Johannesburg-Atlanta flight once and would have loved WiFi on that flight!!

    1. ICUDoc – As mentioned, Delta is actively installing wifi on the widebody fleet. Those will be completed by next summer.

  7. Gone are the days where the airlines can simply plop in a system and forget about it. To remain competitive, they better act like the nation’s cellular carriers, while Gogo can act like the tower lessors (American Tower, etc). They will need to start planning future expandability to these systems so that the wifi dome can easily be upgraded without ripping out the interior of the aircraft each time.

    You think keeping 766 aircraft up to date with the latest wireless technology is expensive? Try the 12,000-15,000 that Verizon is estimated to have, towers whose hardware are upgraded on a routine cycle for technology upgrades like 1xRTT to EVDO to LTE.

    Now you can look at yourself as a people moving company and that this stuff doesn’t matter; that people don’t pick flights based on the latest wifi technology. And you probably won’t fail because of that mindset. But how many people have the perception that the company that spent the most on capex, Verizon Wireless, has the best network out there? The perception is real – and whether it’s true or not, they have capitalized on it. If Delta takes this opportunity to not make wifi an afterthought, but make it a core part of their DNA, the business travelers will follow. And once it’s profitable from them alone, you can leverage the already existing backbone with cheaper consumer offerings (Netflix streaming, Spotify integration, etc) that “customers without corporate accounts” will purchase.

  8. The thing I’m curious about is… Delta is focusing a great deal of resources on Wi Fi & yet there are more pressing issues. Shouldn’t they be paying more attention on the basics? Or have we as a society become such that we need to be pacified constantly & Delta is just giving what the flyers want. Obviously, this is not limited to just Delta.

      1. Perhaps I’m a bit off base, what came to mind was customer service, ground handling, more comfortable seats & not nickeling & diming the very customers you depend on to keep the “good operation” in business. Once those elements are achieved, then focusing on Wi Fi & things like that would be the next step. I absolutely know you understand what I’m getting at.

        Do you or anyone else remember a short lived airline from a decade or so ago called National? They were based out of Las Vegas. They had great staff & customer service. The real problem with them was being based in a tourist city rather than in a corporate one. There weren’t enough high value customers to attract. They couldn’t compete with America West who flew all the same routes.

        1. SEAN – But they are investing in all those things. Delta just has a lot of money to invest and they’re spreading it around.

          As for National, oh yeah I remember them. I was at America West at the time. They did have a nice customer experience but yeah, there just wasn’t enough revenue for that airline to survive.

        2. CF, I don’t think they’re investing in not nickle and diming customers. Thats a derogatory term for unbundling, which I highly doubt will disappear. People just shop on price too much to not make it happen.

  9. The biggest seller will be when airlines offer free wifi on flights. That alone will be a deal breaker for the masses and would definitely entice potentials customer to make a purchase for free wifi on board.

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