MIAMI — When it comes to Wi-Fi, speed is everything. And for those wanting to go online whilst in the air, it’s been anything but speedy of late. So much so that American Airlines sued GoGo, its in-flight Wi-Fi provider, because of slow connectivity, arguing that competitors such as ViaSat, which powers Wi-Fi on United, among others, is significantly faster than GoGo’s service. However, it looks as though slow speeds at 30,000 ft are about to change, thanks to GoGo’s new 2Ku satellite-based Wi-Fi system. Airways was onboard the company’s 737 Airborne Test Lab this week to see just how fast this new service is.

Ready, set, download!

The GoGo testbed flight departed Austin—Bergstrom International at 11:38 local time with several of the company’s engineers and executives onboard, along with about a dozen media armed with every sort of device, from smartphones and tablets to laptops. The plan was to spend about an hour in the air simply experiencing the functionality of the 2Ku system.

One of Gogo's Flying Test Bed is a Boeing 737-500 (N321GG / MSN 26445 / LN 2327) is also known as "Jimmy Ray" (Credits: Author)
Gogo’s Airborne Test Lab is a Boeing 737-500 (N321GG / MSN 26445 / LN 2327) is also known as “Jimmy Ray” (Credits: Author)

The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, and within about five minutes of being airborne, 51 separate devices were connected to the internet, according to the GoGo reps onboard. I noticed many were watching one of two live television channels (I opted for Bloomberg Television but also switched across to Russian ice hockey on ONE World Sports, and why not!) whilst others surfed the internet and watched movies on YouTube and Netflix.

In-flight test in action. (Credits: Author)
In-flight test in action. (Credits: Author)

The 2Ku satellite technology was developed in-house, and as Scott Carmichael, GoGo’s Manager of Social Media and Online Communities, told me, it brings together a variety of things that are very important to airlines. “First of all,” noted Carmichael, “it saves on fuel because, as you can see on the plane, the dome that covers our antennas and that adds to the top of the airplane, is very low, only about five to six inches versus fourteen inches.”

However, the real emphasis is on speed with in-flight Wi-Fi, and according to Carmichael, the 2Ku technology provides a huge amount of extra speed.

Exactly how much extra speed did we (and will passengers themselves be able to) enjoy?

GoGo’s Ku band satellite, which they currently use on Delta’s international fleet, gets up to 12 megabits per second (Mbps). That’s about the most that one can get out of any Ku band antenna, according to Carmichael. On this particular flight, the modem was configured to handle 25 Mbps and was a vast improvement compared to the former 3 Mbps from GoGo’s early air-to-ground system. Currently, the antennas used on the Boeing 737 Test Lab can deliver a combined 70 Mbps of downstream bandwidth.

As Steve Nolan, VP of Public Relations and Communications at GoGo, explained, the modem, as with one’s own home system, is the first so-called “choke-point” for incoming data, and the same is true for in-flight Wi-Fi. “So if there is a bottleneck, it’s going to be coming from the limitations of the modem,” said Nolan.

With 2Ku, users will initially be limited to 25 Mbps downloads with uploads being capped at .5 Mbps. This, Nolan explained, was designed to make live outbound video streaming virtually impossible. And even though 25 Mbps is a vast improvement over the tortoise-like speeds of air-to-ground service, GoGo is also testing a new satellite modem with proprietary features that integrates with 2Ku that will, ultimately, be capable of delivering up to 400 Mbps to an aircraft. These antennas will be able to do that by linking into newer, upcoming lower-orbit geosynchronous satellites, such as those being launched in 2018 by OneWeb. At this time, low-latency broadband will become a reality at 30,000 ft.

Onboard the GoGo 737, the 25 Mbps modem handled the demands from all 51 devices seamlessly. On my iPad, SpeedSmart consistently recorded download speeds of anywhere between 8.5 to 15.5 Mbps, with uploads averaging .45 Mbps, really good by any standards. None of the journalists I spoke with reported any issues with the system.

The results of our test. (Credits: Author)
The results of our test. (Credits: Author)

 

There are several factors that impact Wi-Fi speed, including the capacity of the satellites in use, how many planes are flying in and actually using a particular sector, and, of course, the capability of the modem itself. The fact that the 2Ku antennas are significantly bigger, which makes it easier to pick up multiple channels, is what is ultimately putting the demand on the modem to deliver more speed. Another major advantage of 2Ku is that coverage extends internationally, and GoGo have already completed the first transcontinental test flight, with continual connectivity on a flight from Canada to Germany.

According to Carmichael, what GoGo have done with 2Ku is make it compatible with existing Ku-band systems, which is significant given the excess capacity with current high-orbit satellites. But by 2018 or 2019, with satellites much closer to Earth and a lot more of them, users will be able to experience spectacular speeds. As Steve Nolan told me toward the end of the flight, what GoGo wants is for people to simply be able to do what they want to do. If that is the metric by which 2Ku is to be judged, I’d say – mission accomplished.

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By day, Mike Slattery is Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies and Professor at Texas Christian University, USA. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, England. Originally from South Africa, Mike is an internationally-trained geographer and environmental scientist who has written more than 85 scientific articles and a book on a range of environmental issues, from human impacts on rivers systems to the socio-economic impacts of large-scale wind farms. But he is also an AvGeek with a particular interest in (and extensive collection of) airline menus. Mike’s work takes him all over the globe to landscapes as diverse as the cloud forests of Costa Rica to the game reserves of Southern Africa. At last count, he had flown more than 1.4 million miles, equivalent to being in the air 118.5 days or 5.8 x the distance to the moon. “I’ll never understand how an airliner gets off the ground, but I sure love being in them!” He lives with his family in Fort Worth. drmslattery@gmail.com