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How Terrible In-Flight Wi-Fi Will Finally Become A Thing Of The Past

The more popular airplane Internet access became, the slower it got. New technologies will fix that.

[Image: 06photo on Shutterstock]

In November 2008, a company then known as Aircell hosted a launch party—a literal one. The in-flight broadband company now known as Gogo, after its flagship service, brought in reporters, YouTube celebrities, supporting actors from 30 Rock, and analysts to fly a small circuit on a Virgin America plane around San Francisco International Airport. It was the first commercial aircraft to be equipped and activated with its air-to-ground (ATG) Internet service.

The launch was a success. I was on that flight, drinking a specially concocted cosmo and streaming a live interview with Aircell's CEO to Boing Boing's site. Within months, dozens of planes were wired up to get Wi-Fi. Within a few years, thousands were ready, with Delta committing to connectivity on its entire fleet, followed by full or near-full agreements by others, including Alaska, Southwest, and Virgin America.

Your author Glenn Fleishman (second row from front, holding white laptop) on Virgin America's 2008 Gogo demo flight.

In the early years, it seemed like in-flight Wi-Fi was a great idea that nobody was using, even based on optimistic numbers provided by Gogo. Then something happened that changed everything: the iPhone. As it and its rivals flourished, planes were suddenly packed with addicted users brandishing Wi-Fi-equipped smartphones and then tablets with long battery lives. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks demanded an always-live connection. And Netflix, YouTube, and other streaming services had vast numbers of viewers.

Suddenly, the 3 Mbps of shared access provided by Gogo's first-generation technology seemed paltry—even though the company had always banned streaming video as well as audio/video communications such as Skype. People's complaints about congestion in the air now focus almost entirely on the piddling throughput rates they sometimes see when paying what they believe are high costs for service. Something's got to give.

The good news is that Gogo has had plans to boost speed in the works practically since launch. Some are coming slowly to fruition. And other new technologies from Gogo and others promise even better performance over the long haul.

Too Popular For Its Own Good

No sane business likes to leave money on the table or have a growing army of unhappy customers who nonetheless are addicted to one's service. Gogo is no exception. Michael Small, Gogo's CEO and successor to its founder, admits the company is engaged in a complicated bit of arbitrage.

Gogo CEO Michael Small

Gogo's cost has crept up since its introduction, partly to tamp down usage so that the people who are connected receive adequate performance. A cross-country flight pass that once cost $13 is now $27. But serious Gogo users are insensitive to price hikes. Small says its best customers actively root for the company to raise prices more to deter other users from signing on, thereby reducing competition for bandwidth. "If we were simply to be economists, and maximize revenue subject to the capacity constraints we have, we would raise the price substantially more than we already do," he notes.

However, "You only want to offend them so much," Small says. If Gogo wants to have customers for the long haul, he can't be perceived to soak them now, even if increasing the price would likely cause the overall dropoff in usage that the company currently wants.

Gogo's first wave of technological improvement is a nifty boost to its current offering that it's slowly been rolling out with airline partners since 2012 called ATG-4. First, the radio system was upgraded to EVDO Rev. B, which is even more efficient at squeezing bits out of hertz, boosting rates to 4.9 Mbps. Second, Gogo installs two separate radio systems on a plane's belly, and whenever the signal can lock on two transmitters, the streams are bonded into a single nearly-10-Mbps signal.

Gogo's ATG-4 antenna

All of Virgin America's planes now have ATG-4 installed, representing 53 of the roughly 650 of Gogo's 2,100 partner aircraft with the update in place. Small says that Gogo expects half of its equipped planes will have ATG-4 by the end of 2015, eliminating bottlenecks one plane or route at a time.

The company's ambitions for the future are much higher. (It's impossible to write about planes without puns.) In January, the firm received FCC approval for what it sees as its future: adding satellite service either as a solo offering or in conjunction with ground-based communications. But it will have fierce competition for carriers.

Flocks Of Birds At 22,300 Miles High

It should read:Satellites used for in-flight broadband are geostationary, orbiting at roughly 22,300 miles above the earth, traveling at roughly 7,000 miles per hour, which allows them to remain above a fixed point on the equator. The globe is ringed with them, used for spying, DirecTV, weather forecasting, and much more. Some can be leased across time or throughput for in-flight data relaying. (The satellites bounce signals to and from ground stations that interconnect with the Internet.)

A test plane for Boeing's pioneering, unsuccessful Connexion service.

Boeing's early in-flight Internet service, Connexion, launched in 2001. It reportedly took weeks to install on a plane and added 800 pounds—the weight of four or five passengers—to the aircraft's bulk. A radome, or satellite enclosure, on top of the plane required a gimbal to keep the satellite continuously pointing at one of the satellites from which the airplane maker had leased access. When a plane moved out of the appropriate range of one satellite, it had to disconnect, swivel, and reconnect. The size of the radome also added drag. Every additional pound of weight or its equivalent in drag adds jet-fuel costs.

After Connexion failed, satellite providers learned their lessons, and trimmed the time on the ground and cost to install satellite service to fit within more frequent maintenance windows. Boeing's offering could be put in initially only during a 21-day overhaul. Improvements in satellite and receiving gear to reduce drag and a dramatic drop in weight for the telecom equipment required inside a plane has led to a boom in aircraft equipped with satellite access.

Generations of new satellites have launched as well, offering vastly improved throughput. Satellites lag behind ground technology by several years or a decade, as systems have to be developed, tested, and approved, then scheduled for launch, and finally slowly brought into service in orbit. We're seeing late-2000s and early-2010s improvements in scale and capability reaching orbit now and in the next couple of years.

New aircraft systems do away with the gimbal used by Connexion, reducing mechanical failure, weight, and power requirements. That's accomplished by switching to an antenna that uses technology similar to that in modern Wi-Fi back on the ground. "Beamforming" shapes multiple antennas' output into a focused, more precise signal.

While Boeing no longer runs an in-flight service, it prewires its newly built aircraft with Wi-Fi, power, and other noncritical electronics for each airline. It also continues to devote research and development dollars to the subject, and last October announced it would take an existing military phased-array antenna design and work with Panasonic Avionics, a private-label, in-flight provider, to adapt it for the commercial market. It's due in 2016. Panasonic even put a figure on savings: $65,000 (in October 2014 fuel prices) due to lower weight and drag per year over existing designs.

Gogo has a similar plan in the works as part of its 2Ku offering that it expects to certify this year and start installing on planes through 2016. (Delta recently announced that it would implement the technology on 250 aircraft.) The "2" in its system refers to the inclusion of two separate phase-array systems. While Boeing's design is fully electronic, Gogo opted for a mechanical system to adjust antenna beamforming that has the same effect.

Gogo's high-speed 2Ku equipment

These and other newer systems will allow greater deployment of satellite-backed access, which should spread service to more planes. Most current systems offer as little as 500 Kbps and top out at about 12 Mbps. New satellites coming online this year and next will dramatically increase that. Depending on the particular satellite and provider, 50 to 80 Mbps per plane will be possible.

Gogo is citing 70 Mbps initially, with higher rates as spot-beam satellites come online in the future, which will pinpoint planes using the same kind of beamforming technology showing up on the tops of aircraft to pinpoint satellites. Over the U.S. and Canada, Gogo can offer a hybrid approach that reduces latency by taking downstream access from the satellite while pushing data from the plane back to the Internet through its ground service.

Still, bandwidth-craving travelers will need to be patient. Even with the improved ground service for airlines that use Gogo in the U.S., and an upgrade in satellites and receiving gear around the globe, it'll be a crapshoot through 2018 or 2019 whether you'll be able to book a flight on an arbitrary plane and know you'll have service above a few megabits per second.

The 300-Gbps Solution

One other potential in-flight Internet performance boost is an even longer-term prospect. The FCC has been accepting comments since 2013 on auctioning 500 MHz in the 14 GHz band for air-to-ground broadband. Qualcomm says that this approach could support an unprecedented 300 Gbps of throughput.

The auction would likely divvy up the spectrum to prevent a sole winner and foster competition. However, given that the terms of the terms of the auction aren't yet set, it might be five years before such service would be available in flight.

For now, the steady plod of upgrades, one aircraft at a time, will continue. This year and into next, you'll board a flight, grit your teeth to pay the fee, and be surprised to get service that feels more like a good café connection instead of a dial-up modem. But little by little, the odds of connecting in the air at a speed that feels truly speedy are only going to improve.