Hopefully live streaming content will be easier at 30,000 feet – Photo: AirlineReporter
Imagine someone took your iPhone and disabled LTE. Annoying. Then they shut off 4G. Super annoying. Then they took your remaining 3G connection and split it up between you and 160 of your closest friends. Welcome to the complicated world in-flight WiFi.
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?
WiFi is becoming common, but doesn’t mean it isn’t complex – Photo: Jason Rabinowitz
A few weeks ago, Gizmodo ran an article claiming to rank and explain every major U.S. carrier’s WiFi system. At Routehappy, a big part of my job is to do exactly that. I need to know exactly what WiFi system is installed on every airline fleet and subfleet in the world, how it performs, what its limitations are, and how it ranks in the overall ecosystem. When I read through this article, I couldn’t help but notice it contained a few errors.
It’s a very complicated ecosystem, but not so complicated that it can’t be figured out. While the article does a great job of explaining how in-flight WiFi works and the technology behind it, I felt it was necessary to clear up which airlines currently offer what systems. Gizmodo’s 1-9 ranking is unchanged.
Below are excerpts from the original Gizmodo article, with my comments added under each.
Southwest 737-700 (N711HK) seen at Dallas Love Field with Row 44 raydome between the strobe and vertical stabilizer. It also sports a retro-livery design.
On November 20, 2013 Southwest Airlines announced that, effective immediately, customers could use their portable electronic devices (PEDs) gate-to-gate. This was expected as other airlines had been making similar announcements earlier in the month after the FAA relaxed their rules. What wasn’t expected was that in-flight entertainment (IFE), through their Row 44 WiFi, would also be available gate-to-gate, making them the first U.S. airline to offer a seamless integrated experience, regardless of altitude.
Southwest Airlines has long been a renegade, going against the grain, often being successful with that strategy. When the industry zigs, they zag and usually find themselves with a competitive advantage. And that’s exactly what they did when they bucked the trend of U.S. airlines signing on with traditional passenger-level-hardware IFE. Instead, Southwest chose Row 44, an industry underdog to provide their connectivity. Row 44’s network is powered solely by satellite, whereas (at the time) the other big domestic players (i.e. GoGo) focused on terrestrial (land-based cell tower) service.
I’m a known critic of IFE at the airline-provided-hardware level. I am of the school of thought that if you can give me WiFi, I’ll find a way to entertain myself, with my own device(s). BYOD (that is, “bring your own device”) is gaining in popularity across many industries and applications, so why not with airlines? Traditional IFE is expensive to implement, heavy to fly around, and requires added maintenance. With passengers likely to bring the added weight of their own devices anyway, why not simply eliminate the cost and complexity?
Southwest’s in-flight connectivity is nothing new, but has matured well beyond basic WiFi. I recently had the opportunity to try out the new gate-to-gate, or in my case, gate-to-gate-to-gate Row 44 on a business trip from Kansas City with a stopover at Dallas Love Field on my way to San Antonio. Let me say, I was impressed.
Most times I can’t stand commercials. Of course this doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good commercial when I see one. GoGo, which provides WiFi service on airlines, has started an advertising campaign starring Trav Lehrman (say it out loud and you should get it). GoGo describes Trav as “an eccentric new spokesperson,” but I would probably say he is a bit uncouth, but still likeable.
Trav is going to be a part of a bigger advertising campaign by GoGo that will use radio, airport based advertising, online display and video ads, and social media. GoGo is also holding a contest where you can win thier internet for life and $10,000.00 — that will buy a lot of stuff you don’t need from the SkyMall catalog.
GoGo is going all out with Trav. Not only is he in video, but he also has his own website and Twitter feed. If you want more of Trav, no worries. He has starred in more than one video.