Gogo isn't so slow. The pioneering in-flight Wi-Fi provider, whose reputation for speed has been shaky for the past few years, took us up on a flight with its new enhanced 2Ku wireless system. And yes, you can stream video.
Rather than connecting to towers on the ground, Gogo's new system uses satellites, much like competitors ViaSat and Panasonic do. We saw a test of Gogo's initial 2Ku rollout in late 2015, and had no problem streaming Netflix on a plane equipped so its passengers could share about 70Mbps of downstream bandwidth. That's seven times what Gogo's old ground-based system can do.
This year's upgrade ramps speeds up again without requiring any more external changes to planes. The trick is a new modem that can take advantage of Intelsat's newest satellites, Gogo CTO Anand Chari said. Our flight was configured for 100Mbps per plane, but as demand increases, the modem could be ramped up to 400Mbps per plane, he said.
That guy is really impressed with our in-flight Wi-Fi speeds.
"The modem, combined with a high-throughput satellite, is a big step up from what you saw last time," Chari said. "The modem was the bottleneck, and we removed the bottleneck."
With a Netflix stream running at about 3Mbps, that means 30-35 people can stream Netflix. Many more could surf the web or send emails, because those kinds of uses happen in bursts, making it easier to share bandwidth.
American, Delta, Aeromexico, Gol, and Virgin Australia have all committed to installing 2Ku on a total of 1600 planes, Chari said, with Delta being the biggest customer. Travel journalist Jason Rabinowitz flew on a 2Ku-equipped Delta plane earlier this year, and got real-life download speeds around 15Mbps. The new modems will start to be installed this summer, Chari said.
So How Fast Is It?
You want speeds. We ran 11 speed tests using our proprietary field testing software, which we're currently using for our Fastest Mobile Networks project. In those tests, we saw download speeds from 17Mbps to 81Mbps and upload speeds from 2.4Mbps to 6.7Mbps. That gave us an average download speed of 53Mbps and an average upload speed of 4.7Mbps, with an average latency of 1211ms.
Those speeds varied wildly depending on who was doing what else on the plane, of course. Using a web speed test from Ookla Speedtest.net, we got only 0.88Mbps up during a period when two other journalists were trying to Facebook live stream from the plane. Gogo execs later explained that the plane maxed out at 93Mbps down and 8Mbps up, shared between the dozen or so journalists on the plane.
The combination of fast overall speeds and long latency made for a slightly odd internet experience. Web pages, which consist of many small files, were sluggish to load—that's the latency. But high-quality video, once it started streaming after10 seconds or so, was crystal clear. I even got Hulu and YouTube streaming at once, without buffering. VPNs were hit and miss. While I ran an OpenVPN connection and got 45Mbps down, a PulseSecure VPN slowed the web to a crawl.
Because of the narrow uplink, video calls were shaky. But you shouldn't make phone calls from a plane, anyway. That's a good way to enrage your seatmates, and then the plane will have to land, someone will be arrested, and everyone will be inconvenienced.
If you're looking for privacy, watch Legion in the bathroom. Sorry, no porn.
In general, the long latencies but high bandwidth means the network is shaped better for in-flight entertainment than for heavy web surfing.
The web experience will get faster on commercial flights, Chari said. On those flights, modems will be configured to pre-resolve common domain names, preventing the need to bounce up to the satellite and down to the ground just to figure out where your browser wants to go.
The web might also be filtered, depending on what flight you're on and where you're traveling. All of Gogo's commercial airline clients apply anti-porn filters, Chari said. The on-board modems also have GPS to make the web obey local laws. Over China or Russia, your web experience will be subject to those countries' censorship laws, and over India, it will turn off entirely, as India does not permit in-flight Internet.
Hurry Up and Wait
Gogo showed us great technology. So why do many American Airlines' planes still offer such a hideous experience? American was Gogo's first customer, and the carrier's practice of charging up to $50 per flight for sub-1Mbps speeds has given Gogo a bad name among many fliers.
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American uses an old Gogo technology called ATG-4, which delivers only 9.8Mbps per plane. It ended up pricing the network very high to prevent too many people from using the limited connection, Chari said. More bandwidth, with 2Ku, means less scarcity, so it'll hopefully mean lower prices, he said.
We first heard about Gogo's faster 2Ku in 2014, but Gogo's 2Ku installation was caught in a lengthy FAA certification process, as Bloomberg explained last year. American got sick of the delay and decided to switch more than 500 domestic aircraft to competitor ViaSat, Skift reported, while 140 American aircraft will get Gogo 2Ku. American is hoping that having multiple providers will let it upgrade its systems more quickly, the airline told Skift.