I’m flying high over Central Texas, watching Friday Night Lights, one of the best TV shows ever made about the state.
But this isn’t on seat-back, airline-provided TV. This is on my MacBook Air, courtesy of Gogo’s newest in-flight Wi-Fi service, a system that aims to provide true high-speed Internet in the sky, a far cry from the slow, balky speeds many people are used to when flying.
Launching soon in Mexico on Gogo’s initial partner Aeromexico (and before too long in the United States on Delta’s fleet) the new service, known as 2KU, feeds between 20 and 25 megabits per second of broadband to planes in the network. In practice during a demonstration flight I took today, tied to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, I measured download speeds of between 12.43 Mbps and 14.61 Mbps.
Upload speeds, which Gogo will throttle at airlines’ request, topped out at about 0.35 Mbps.
According to Blane Boynton, Gogo’s vice president of product management, the 2KU system is based on a new antenna that provides twice the efficiency of the company’s two-year-old KU system.
"It’s a major step change in antenna technology," Boynton said. "It allows us to use satellites in the air today more efficiently than the next best alternatives. What that translates to for passengers is higher throughput and faster speeds. At the aircraft level, that means higher capacity: More people can use it, and people can do deeper things." Throughput refers to high Internet capacity.
As noted earlier, that definitely includes enabling streaming services like Netflix, HBO Go, or Amazon, as well as the ability to watch YouTube and other online videos, and impressively, at a very home-network quality.
As part of Gogo’s new service, it’s also offering an Internet TV service it calls IPTV. During the demo flight, the company provided two channels, available via a web browser, with terrific video quality. Boynton explained that when the 2KU service launches, airlines will be able to provide multiple IP TV channels to passengers.
One of the big advantages of IPTV, Boynton said, is that because the TV content is sent as IP data, airlines can send TV channels to their aircraft anywhere in the world. That compares with existing TV options like DirecTV or Dish Network, which have limited geographic footprints. By comparison, channels watched via IPTV can be viewed anywhere.
Another advantage of IPTV, he said, is that the stream is broadcast just once to an aircraft, and usage by multiple passengers doesn’t impact onboard Internet capacity.
For years, Gogo’s Internet throughput has topped out at about 9 Mbps, Boynton said. With the new 2KU system, planes will receive 70 Mbps from satellites at their antenna. That will translate to between 20 and 25 Mbps on board, with passengers likely experiencing speeds in the 14 or 15 Mbps range. Naturally, the more people that use the service at any given time during a flight, the slower the speeds.
Still, he noted that during tests, Gogo was able to stream video on as many as 50 devices at any given time.
Boynton said that satellite operators are in the process of launching high-throughput satellites that use what’s called "spot-beam" technology. That means that in the not too distant future, airplanes could see onboard speeds of between 100 and 200 Mbps.
That means, Boynton said, that airlines that use the new 2KU system are future-proofed for implementation of the high-throughput satellites, even as they can deliver home-quality Internet speeds today.
While package pricing will likely be up to Gogo’s airline customers, Boynton said customers should expect that 2KU Internet service will not cost more than what’s available today, at least not the higher-priced packages offered by various airlines. That’s great news for people who feel that Gogo’s in-flight Wi-Fi service has a lot left to be desired.
And while it’s always hard to say whether a technology’s performance during a demonstration will match real-life conditions—our 737 had about 30 people on it versus well over 150 on a typical commercial flight—I can safely say that, in addition to successfully writing this story in a Google doc while on the Gogo plane, for the first time getting my Friday Night Lights fix at altitude was a pleasure, not a pain.
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Daniel Terdiman/Fast Company; 02 / Photos: Daniel Terdiman;