In-flight WiFi quickly transitioned from a magical new technology that few people had any reason to use, to a near-ubiquitous amenity that passengers demand on every flight. A victim of its own success, in-flight WiFi is now often incredibly expensive and annoyingly slow. How did we get here, and what is being done about it?
When Gogo launched its air-to-ground network with American Airlines in August 2008, just one month after the iPhone 3G went on sale, most people probably didn’t have a data plan. Heck, most people didn’t even own a smartphone yet. Web use at the time was relatively light and didn’t require much bandwidth.
As more and more airlines installed the original Gogo ATG system, it became evident over time that the 3G connection shared by all passengers on board a flight was becoming impractical. Data demands grew exponentially year after year, but changes in the aerospace industry happen slowly and require lengthy regulatory approval processes. It would be years before Gogo could deploy something better.
In 2012, Gogo launched ATG-4, an upgraded version of the original ATG network that tripled data speeds to 9.8 Mbps. ATG-4 is an improvement, but it still doesn’t support streaming video or other bandwidth intensive uses. It’s far from the experience you get at home. In September 2016, multiple airlines are still upgrading their hundreds of aircraft with the original ATG equipment to ATG-4, but it isn’t nearly enough. Gogo still has to charge insane prices to keep usage low so the connection works for the few who do pay for it.So, what now? It’s time for Gogo to start from scratch, that’s what. Gogo has reached the maximum possible speeds for its original licensed network, so it is about to start building out an entirely new network using LTE and unlicensed spectrum. Gogo is claiming data speeds of over 100 Mbps, which is roughly 30x faster than ATG. For airlines already operating ATG-4, the upgrade can happen overnight and simply requires some equipment to be changed out. But with thousands of aircraft operating on the original ATG networks, it will take years to retrofit them all, and it won’t start until 2018.
Only time will tell if Gogo can stay ahead of the data demand curve, but this time it knows what battle it’s getting into. The demand for data is growing faster than anyone could have imagined in 2008, but the mission in 2016 is clear and Gogo knows it is far from the only game this time around.