MIAMI — Back in 2008, in-flight Wi-Fi was a brilliant idea. Let business travelers use their work-issued IBM laptops to connect to a corporate VPN and send some emails. Maybe, if time allowed for it, catch up on the news before landing at the next city for a meeting. For a short while, everything was great.
As Gogo was rapidly expanding on the domestic fleets of American, Delta, and US Airways, something of a revolution was happening on the internet. Streaming video went from an occasional low resolution gimmick to a necessity virtually overnight. Suddenly, Gogo’s air-to-ground network that was great for business travelers was being flooded by casual travelers watching YouTube videos of cats, and it simply couldn’t keep up.
Tried as it might to improve network speeds through cell site expansions, upgrades, and outrageous pricing to artificially keep demand low, nothing was really working. Gogo developed a bit of a bad reputation for offering unusable WiFi at outrageous prices. Something had to change.
Enter 2Ku. To get a fresh start and to catch up with the competition, Gogo looked to space, where many of its competitors had already gone. While a bulk of Gogo’s competition were developing their own satellite constellations, the company decided to harness existing satellites and develop a proprietary aircraft antenna system to achieve high speeds. While traditional satellite systems require a somewhat bulky radome to conceal an antenna that pans and tilts to align with satellites, Gogo opted to use two flat antennas that mechanically rotate under a slim radome.
With 2Ku, Gogo says peak download speeds of 70 Mbps are possible, while future upgrades to the modem will push its capacity past the 200 Mbps per aircraft mark. With these speeds, streaming video from sites like Netflix and YouTube are not only allowed, but is actively encouraged. The exact opposite is true on the current air-to-ground network.
Several weeks ago, Gogo helped to track down a Delta Boeing 737-800 with 2Ku installed to give it a real-world test run. The 737, operating a fully loaded commercial turn between New York JFK and Miami, is one of dozens that has seen 2Ku installed recently.
2Ku, unlike air-to-ground that only operates above 10,000 feet, operates gate-to-gate. As soon as the flight pushed back from the gate, 2Ku was up and running. The pricing, at least for now, is set to a rather acceptable rate of $9.95 per flight, far lower than the pricing on Gogo’s older systems, but not matching the $0 price point JetBlue has set with ViaSat.
From start to finish, 2Ku operated mostly as advertised. Speed tests returned admirable results, ranging from about 15 to 20 Mbps. Netflix and all other streaming video sites worked with few hiccups, and general web browsing was plenty fast. Because the satellite coverage is near-global, the signal did not cut out while we were routed far off the East coast.
Because 2Ku works gate-to-gate, I was able to stream each takeoff and landing on Periscope, which worked well except for a few momentary pauses during takeoff rotation.
2Ku lives up to the hype put forth by Gogo. With a massive backlog of aircraft to get through, the trick for Gogo will getting the system to scale and not see speeds decline as the number of users increases.
For now, Gogo has finally gotten the reputation reboot it needs, but still has to regain the trust of many past business travelers and cat video streamers alike.
Disclaimer: Gogo paid for the flights, but the views expressed of the author are his own.