I hate paying for in-flight Wi-Fi. I use its terrible quality and high price as excuses to disconnect from the world and take a nap. But Gogo is about to ruin my life with its upgraded Wi-Fi, rolling out to airlines later this year.
I tested Gogo’s next-gen 2Ku internet system in its Airborne Test Lab, a Boeing 737-500 that flew a couple dozen journalists around Newark Liberty International Airport Tuesday afternoon. The lab environment combined Gogo’s upgraded modem with capacity from Intelsat’s high-throughput satellites, which aim to deliver up to 100 Mbps per airplane. On a mostly empty plane cruising at 30,000 feet, I was getting anywhere from 20-50 Mbps download speeds on every device I brought with me: a MacBook Air, 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and iPhone 7 Plus. This will likely never happen to me again—both sitting in a seat with extra legroom on a Boeing 737 and the ultra-fast download speeds—and it was glorious.
I played Beats One, Apple Music’s live-streaming radio station, on my iPhone, watched episodes of 13 Reasons Why on Netflix on my iPad Pro, watched several movie trailers on YouTube, sent dozens of iMessages, chatted with my coworkers on the Mac Slack app, and worked in our content management system (which hates normal in-flight Wi-Fi and is therefore my excuse for not working on planes). My pal Ed Baig of USA Today even managed to Facebook Live the experience (with a brief guest appearance from yours truly) for close to 30 minutes.
I struggled to make FaceTime video calls, with just one of the three attempts I made successful. The video quality wasn’t great, and there was a severe lag. Gogo’s reps told me upload speeds are nowhere close to the download speed capability, and that’s partly due to airlines not wanting passengers to make calls and upload videos to social networks (although as United can attest, when you’re still on the ground, all bets are off).
There were 53 devices connecting to Gogo’s in-flight Wi-Fi during our test flight. The max upload speed was 8 Mbps, while max download was 93 Mbps. I didn’t experience anything close to 93 Mbps, but I did hit 53 Mbps, which was pretty solid. We used a total of 29GB in our roughly 2-hour flight.
Gogo’s first-gen 2Ku modems are already in use on select Delta, AeroMexico, and Virgin Australia planes. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are currently testing the technology. With 2Ku, Gogo is aiming for 15+ Mbps per passenger with 98 percent service availability. That’s far better than what we have right now, and Gogo expects its next-gen modem and high-throughput satellites to bump download speeds even higher than 15 Mbps (though maybe not quite 53 Mbps).
How Gogo is fixing its Wi-Fi problem
Gogo’s reputation isn’t great. Its Wi-Fi was so slow that American Airlines sued the company to get out of its contract (but later dropped the suit and is now committed to outfit 140 planes with 2Ku technology). The real reason for god-awful, snail-like internet speeds? Air-to-ground technology. Connecting planes to ground-based cell phone towers resulted in constrained bandwidth with download speeds of around 3 Mbps. That’s just...sad.
Those were the dark ages, but we’re moving past that. Gogo leased capacity from Intelsat to connect planes to satellites—wide-beam at first, and soon high-throughput ones that layer more capacity on top of existing satellites for higher-trafficked areas. Those satellites are coming online this year, with the Asia Pacific region rounding out the expansion with high-throughput satellite coverage toward the end of 2018. By leasing capacity from Intelsat, Gogo can finally make streaming and web-browsing on a long-distance flight a faster, less frustrating experience.
Will that cost more? Well, in-flight Wi-Fi pricing is the domain of the airlines, but a Gogo spokesperson told me it’s unlikely that the upgraded service will cost far more than it currently does. (That would certainly anger airline passengers, which is what this air-to-satellite system is designed to fix.) Some airlines even offer promotions with free Gogo Wi-Fi.
I don’t expect my flight on Gogo’s test lab to be representative of my next commercial in-flight Wi-Fi experience, but it is a sign that airplane internet connectivity doesn’t have to be so terrible. Facebook addicts and workaholics, rejoice. As for me, I’ll be over here shaking my fist that airplanes are no longer an internet-free safe space.