Tuesday afternoon, at Newark Liberty International Airport, I boarded a plane, took off into the air and proceeded to watch Planet Earth on Netflix in the sky for an hour and a half. I then landed at Newark Liberty International Airport—a few hundred feet from where I’d taken off.
I ended the day where I started it, and that was the point. So was the Netflix. On this day, Gogo, the world’s leading provider of in-flight Wi-Fi, was sampling its fastest, most reliable Wi-Fi product yet for journalists in the fields of aviation and travel. Aboard Gogo’s white-and-sky-blue 737—the Jimmy Ray “flight lab,” named for Gogo’s founder—I joined about 20 others in testing “the next generation of 2Ku” Wi-Fi.
In sum, I learned that Gogo’s in-flight Wi-Fi, powered by new modems and Intelsat IS32E satellites, is about to get much, much better.
On Tuesday’s flight, my “gogoinflight” signal floated between 35Mbs and 64Mbs—stronger than what I’m writing with at home (37Mbs). And that was gate to gate, through takeoff and landing, nearly without interruption. For reference, you need about 4Mbs to watch Netflix programming. For general browsing and email, which require only periodic requests to servers, you need much less than that. I streamed Planet Earth episodes and VICE YouTube videos at the same time, while using email, with no discernible issue.
Allegedly, the Wi-Fi at 30,000 feet on this day peaked at a blistering 93Mbs, though I did not measure that myself. Uploads peaked at just 8Mbs, but for me manifested around 4Mbs. All this, despite 20-some journalists on 53 devices trying their hardest to consume bandwidth.
That said, my VPN (iVPN) brought my internet bacchanal to a temporary halt. I was told by CTO Anand Chari that initially, the new 2ku technology is not yet optimized for all VPNs (which carry server requests indirectly, via multiple stops) for reasons related to latency. My attempts to FaceTime were also largely unsuccessful, though a few flying beside me managed better. Ed Baig of USA Today even Facebook Live’d for a while.
For now, the performance is a preview of what’s to come. Of the 17 airlines offering Gogo services around the world, 13—on 170 individual airplanes, 100 of which are Delta’s—have already been equipped with first-generation 2ku connections (old modems and satellites). This first-gen 2ku Gogo setup generates signals as strong as 15Mbs—some 20-fold better than the bottlenecked bandwidth that has frustrated Gogo users in the past.
With the next-gen 2ku I tested, Gogo hopes to be able to deliver 100Mbs to every airplane, with room to grow (the new modems can handle up to 400Mbs). Some 1,600 planes are signed on for next-gen 2ku installation through the end of 2018, with 600 set to be configured by the end of this year. Planes that are already equipped with first-gen 2ku will, at the end of this cycle, be retrofitted with the new modems to bring their Wi-Fi up to what will soon be the new standard.
American Airlines, which not long ago nearly took Gogo to court, has signed on for 2ku installation on 140 planes. Among the other airlines that will soon offer up to 100Mbs Wi-Fi in the air are Aeromexico (the only one with next-gen 2ku already in operation), Aer Lingus, Air France, Air Canada, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, GOL, Iberia, Japan Transoceanic Air, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia.
Pricing for now will remain the same, though Gogo expects to reevaluate as passengers familiarize themselves with the new tech. As I understand it, Gogo’s current price structure is designed to limit the number of passengers consuming bandwidth (cheap/free access would mean more people clogging it up). With much more bandwidth soon available, and passenger expectations of Gogo set to change, it remains possible that more passengers will be priced into Gogo’s user base.
Until then, know what airplane you’re flying on. Your Gogo dollars may already take you further than they used to.