Gogo, the company that's become synonomous with in-flight Wi-Fi, is preparing to give flyers a huge speed boost. This week Gogo invited a crew of journalists out to its Chicago headquarters to get a close look at 2Ku satellite internet, which the company claims is the next generation of connectivity in the skies. For years, in-flight Wi-Fi has really only been good for web browsing and messaging. But now, as 2Ku moves toward commercial launch (big airlines like Delta have already signed on), Gogo is almost ready for you to stream Netflix, HBO, YouTube, and other services on a plane.
Gogo has been putting 2Ku through its paces in recent months, taking over 40 devices (all simultaneously streaming video) up in its own Boeing 737 plane. That test proved successful, as it should. Most commercial flights have more passengers than that — and who knows how many devices — so you'd hope Gogo's new technology could handle such a load without blinking. The system's design uses two antennas, with one for download and the other for upload. This approach lets Gogo deliver peak speeds of 70Mbps to each aircraft. That's split between everyone else you see using a device during flight.
On a gloomy Chicago morning of gray skies and gusty winds, Gogo took us on our own short flight in the "airborne test lab," nicknamed Jimmy Ray after the company's founder. Wasting no time, I logged into Netflix and started playing Master of None. Playback began quickly, but it took some time before the video quality moved up to satisfactory levels on my Retina MacBook Pro. Once it did, I opened up YouTube and Spotify — both of which ran with no obvious stuttering or pauses. Impressive.
Run a speed test, though, and you're quickly reminded that you're using the internet 35,000 feet in the sky and this technology can only do so much. I pulled between 6Mbps and 8Mbps on the download side, and upload was pretty much non-existent, failing to cross or even really approach 1Mbps. Latency can be another killer; pings averaged around 900 milliseconds. This is satellite-based technology, after all. You're not going to confuse this for your cozy Comcast or FiOS internet connection.
Still, it's worlds better than where Gogo has been to this point. Once you start streaming something, it generally keeps playing uninterrupted. If 2Ku can deliver that reliably, it could be a small miracle for parents desperate to keep their kids entertained mid-flight; same goes for anyone else who forgets to download a movie onto their smartphone or tablet before leaving for the airport. We've all been there.
There'll also be a live television component to the new offering, and Gogo sees it opening new opportunities for the ways flight crews interact with passengers. But that's down the road. What you probably care about most is that Netflix actually works. It did on the Jimmy Ray, though things slowed noticeably when everyone on board was pushing the connection. I can't speak to how everything will fare months from now on a packed flight with every seat filled.
So when do you get to try it? Gogo's got to install the 2Ku tech in hundreds of planes first. 8 airlines are either committed to or testing 2Ku, totaling over 550 aircraft by the company's current count. Sometime in 2016 seems like a safe bet if you fly Delta. The big open question is how much more you'll pay for the luxury of streaming and truly usable in-flight Wi-Fi. Some competition certainly wouldn't hurt this market, but Gogo hasn't had much to worry about there. United partners with Panasonic for most of its flights, though turns to Gogo for "premium service" trips from New York to San Francisco or Los Angeles. Only a year ago, AT&T walked away from building what could've become a serious threat to Gogo's business. So this is what we've got, a company that's free to innovate at its own pace (and as satellite/antenna technologies allow). But if you've been unimpressed with what Gogo has built so far, well, things are about to get faster.