MIAMI — On a brisk Friday morning at Newark Liberty International Airport, as the first flakes of snow for the new winter season fell, the in-flight WiFi company Gogo demonstrated a new application called Text & Talk. They even provided some insight into the increasingly competitive WiFi market in a post-electronics ban under 10,000 feet world.
Text & Talk is a relatively basic application, yet it provides something that has been lacking from the in-flight internet experience up until now: The application allows the user of any iPhone or Android smartphone to send and receive text messages and phone calls. The secret formula that Gogo has come up with is the ability to do so from the users own phone number. Of course, anyone who pays for a WiFi connection has been able to use services like WhatsApp or iMessage. Those services, however, require that both the sender and recipient be using the same app. Text & Talk is completely device and service agnostic.
The application, which has no set pricing at this time, couldn’t be easier to set up. It does come with one important caveat, however: The user must download and setup the application before a flight, as the application must first register with a cellular network before it can be used in the air. Once up in the air, the application cannot be configured, leaving impulse users who may only learn about it once in-flight out of luck.
Once signed up the registration process is quite simple, with all the magic happening on the back end. For Gogo, however, this was the most difficult part. While the product itself may have been ready for quite some time, Scott Carmichael, Community Marketing Manager at Gogo, tells us that setting up individual agreements with cellular carriers was a lengthy process. Thankfully, agreements have been worked out with over 200 carriers, so just about anyone should be able to use Text & Talk.
The new product has been in production for over a year, but has finally rolled out to the business aviation community where it will most likely be used to its full potential. While commercial airlines may not be too keen on passengers making phone calls (despite the fact that nearly every seat used to have an aircell phone), the ability to text message creates no such “loud neighbor” issues.
Text & Talk requires no additional hardware on the airline side, and theoretically could be activated fleet wide overnight. Brad Jaehn, Gogo VP of Product, says the company plans to roll this feature into a dedicated Gogo app, eliminating the existing “launcher” style application. Because the application runs over the existing WiFi network, there is no need to install a GSM pico cell system, which are not certified for use in the United States.
During our test flight out of Newark the service worked as advertised. Calls were loud and clear, although with a tiny of bit of a delay in the audio. Text messages worked flawlessly, and the recipient would never know that the Gogo system was in use. Gogo believes that this feature will be primarily used by leisure travelers.
As the list of airlines certified by the FAA to allow passengers to use personal electronics under 10,000 feet continues to expand on a near daily basis, the race to provide the pipe to the internet during that first phase of flight is heating up. Although Gogo may be the most well-known name in the game, their system is unable to provide coverage on the ground and the first few thousand feet of flight. Unfortunately, this is a limitation of their network technology and will not be easily overcome anytime soon.
Several competitors, such as the Ka-band solution from LiveTV (coming soon to JetBlue and United) and Global Eagle’s Row44 (currently on Southwest), have already made promises to bring connectivity while on the ground. Appearing on CNBC last week, Marty St. George, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Commercial at JetBlue, noted that JetBlue intends to update their upcoming WiFi system to function under 10,000 feet by next year.
As Seth Miller points out on his personal blog, satellite connectivity is extremely limited and expensive. Congested airports like New York JFK often have very long waits for takeoff, a time when passengers will be pulling down massive amounts of data that will have to be paid for.
Aside from the considerable cost, Mr. Carmichael of Gogo says it while it may be technically possibly for satellite systems to provide a connection while on the ground and under 10,000 feet, it may not work as well as users expect. Satellite systems rely on an antenna mounted on the top of the aircraft. This antenna rotates and pans to achieve the exact position it requires in order “see” the satellite.
Passengers who have flown on any flight with a live TV system may have noticed that the TV signal cuts out periodically when on the ground.The signal also may also cut out momentarily when the aircraft makes any sort of movement while in-flight. This is due to the fact that the antenna is not able to keep up with the movement of the aircraft, and needs additional time to complete its own movement. The live TV system is also receive only, whereas satellite internet systems must both send and receive, meaning the signal must be even stronger than for a TV system. Dropouts of the internet signal before the aircraft levels out for cruising may be indeed be a problem, but only time will tell.
Airlines which use a satellite system for connectivity under 10,000 feet must move forward carefully, and assess whether they want to promise an experience that they may not be able to deliver on, and more importantly, afford.