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The Future of Inflight High-Speed WiFi: A Look at Which Carriers Are on the Cutting Edge

March 12, 2014
9 min read
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The Future of Inflight High-Speed WiFi: A Look at Which Carriers Are on the Cutting Edge
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TPG Assistant Editor Melanie Wynne checks in on the in-flight WiFi situation on major US and international carriers and gives us a snapshot of where we can expect to connect at high speeds in the near future.

Last July, we published a post called Routehappy Unveils First US & International In-Flight WiFi Report: The Best and Worst Airlines For In-flight Connectivity and in March, we posted a roundup of International Airline In-Flight WiFi. As spring approaches - and Gogo prepares to raise its WiFi rates - we think it's high time for an update on the state of high-speed WiFi in the air.

JetBlue's New High-Speed Fly-Fi Service

JetBlue launched its new high-speed Fly-Fi service back in December, beginning with its Airbus fleet and expanding to all its planes within the next two years. Powered by ViaSat, Fly-Fi's unparalleled transfer rate will be 12 Mbps for each individual user, and is intended to simulate an at-home WiFi usage experience.

The airline's basic web-browsing Fly-Fi plan will be free to use through June of this year. Fly-Fi Plus, a higher-bandwidth plan for streaming movies and large downloads, now costs $9 an hour. JetBlue's WiFi service is presently available on some of the airline's A320s, with plans to expand to the airline's entire Airbus fleet throughout 2014, followed by the E190s.

Though Fly-Fi is presently the clear winner in the in-flight broadband race, Gogo Inflight and a satellite-based service called Row 44 aim to be serious contenders for that title.

JetBlue's Fly-Fi is the fastest WiFi in the sky
JetBlue's Fly-Fi is the fastest WiFi in the sky

Gogo Inflight's Talk & Text and Gogo GTO

Gogo Inflight provides in-flight WiFi service to over 2,000 planes on Air Tran, Alaska, American/US Airways, Delta, Frontier, United, Virgin America, as well as Air Canada. Soon, it will also serve at least 75 aircraft on Aeromexico.

Of the 2,000+ planes served by Gogo, over 300 planes are equipped with the company’s next-generation ATG-4 service, which provides more than three times the bandwidth of its regular WiFi service, and over 1,500 are set to carry its new air-to-ground technology, Gogo GTO (Ground To Orbit). Gogo's answer to Fly-Fi, Gogo GTO combines Ku-band (and eventually, Ka-band) satellite service and Gogo cellular networks to produce speeds in excess of 60 Mbps for an entire plane. Working with cellular towers installed throughout the 48 contiguous states and now part of Canada, as well, Gogo GTO service is fast, but certainly not as fast as Fly-Fi.

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By mid-2014, Virgin America planes are committed to provide Gogo GTO, and Delta will soon introduce the service on its long-haul 747-400s.

Gogo GTO is fast, but not as fast as Fly-Fi
Gogo GTO is fast, but not as fast as Fly-Fi

Also soon (though no clear date is specified at present), Gogo also plans to introduce Gogo Talk & Text, which requires a downloadable app to route calls and texts directly through an airplane's WiFi network. In its beta stage, Gogo Talk & Text works only with Android devices and iPhones, but Gogo has (again, unspecified) plans to eventually extend service to Windows Phone and Blackberry devices. Initial tests of Talk & Text have yielded good texting performance, but voice call quality has proven more variable, subject to an individual plane's WiFi service. It's Gogo's hope to fix these problems before final rollout.

Though no airlines have yet confirmed use of Talk & Text, all of Gogo's present U.S.-based airlines (Air Tran [despite its merger with Southwest, which uses Row 44], Alaska, American/US Airways, Delta, Frontier, United and Virgin America) are likely candidates for the service, according to Gogo. To see which airlines already offer in-flight calling and texting services, see our In-flight Phone Calls/Texts Roundup: Which International Airlines Allow Talking and Texting on the Phone.

As its bandwidth capabilities increase and its services expand, Gogo will be raising its prices on April 6 of this year. At present, Gogo sells the Traveler Pass, a single-airline WiFi pass, for $39.95 a month; next month, this price will increase to $49.95. For a limited time, however, you can lock in the present rate on American/US Airways, AirTran, Alaska, Delta, Frontier and Virgin America or use the following code (despite its already-past expiration date) to get 30% off your first month.

Now's the time to lock in this low monthly rate for Gogo Inflight
Now's the time to lock in this low monthly rate for Gogo

Row 44 on Boeing Next Generation 737 Planes

Boeing's 737 Next Generation (73NG) family of single-aisle jets are known for their fuel efficiency, seating capacity and modern flight decks that use the latest large flat-panel-display technology. These have also been among the first planes equipped with Row 44, a Hughes HX satellite communications platform and nationwide broadband service that provides both high-speed in-flight internet and content-streaming over WiFi-enabled tablets, smartphones and laptops.

Row 44 provides land and overwater access to live television and on-demand video, destination services, games and shopping, as well as real-time flight map and flight status updates. Named for the last row on a DC-10 commercial jet, considered the plane's least desirable section because of its proximity to the bathroom and lack of reclining seats, Hughes posits that high-speed broadband could even make a section like Row 44 worthwhile.

However, the system is presently more innovative for its in-flight video services, with capabilities like real-time credit card authorizations, cabin surveillance and equipment monitoring, and up-to-the-minute delivery of weather and route info than its internet service. Lagging far behind Fly-Fi and Gogo GTO, Row 44 presently offers per-user download speeds of between 1 and 5 Mbps and upload speeds of about 68 Kbps.

The Row 44 portal
The Row 44 portal

Row 44 can presently be experienced aboard 737 NGs operated by Southwest, Allegiant, Icelandair, Transaero and Norwegian Air Shuttle. On Southwest's 737 NG flights, you can also watch free (albeit ad-supported) Dish TV.

Within the next few years, Row 44 plans to introduce Ka-band service, which will allow its users to browse the web and stream video at much higher speeds. The following video shows the process of outfitting Transaero's Boeing 737 NG with Row 44's present internet service, which is pretty cool:

Airlines Expanding their WiFi Service

Apart from all the still-to-come high-speed internet services, the following airlines - both domestic and international - have recently made updates to their fleets' WiFi services:

Aer Lingus: Aer Lingus'A330s, which serve all of the airline's transatlantic flights, are now all equipped with Panasonic's Avionics Wi-Fi, and prices range from $14.95-$24.95.

American Airlines: American's new 777-300ER is now offering international WiFi powered by Gogo, available for purchase only onboard and ranging from $12 for a 2-hour pass to $19 for a duration-of-flight pass. The 777-300ER offers service between London (LHR) and three U.S. cities -- New York (JFK), Los Angeles (LAX) and Miami (MIA); and Sao Paulo (GRU) and two U.S. cities -- New York (JFK) and Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW). By year's end, the 770-300ER will serve two additional routes: Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and Hong Kong (HKG); and Miami (MIA) and Sao Paulo (GRU).

British Airways: BA now offers OnAir's GSM mobile phone and tablet connectivity aboard its twice-daily Club World London City route to/from New York (JFK) on its A318 aircraft. Pricing for OnAir service is grouped in package deals, determined by data usage.

British Airways now has WiFi on its Club World London City route
British Airways now has WiFi on its Club World London City route to/from JFK

Eithad Airways: The airline had hoped to be 100% WiFi-equipped by this year, and while it's not quite there yet, it's certainly getting close. Eithad's A320 and A330 now feature OnAir's GSM and internet technology, and Avionics-powered Wi-Fly is available on its Boeing 777 and A340; the airline plans more wide-body-aircraft roll-outs in the near future. Wi-Fly includes WiFi and mobile phone connectivity (except for calls to 1800/800 numbers), and prices range from $11.95 for a 2- hour pass to $21.95 for duration-of-flight service. OnAir's prices are dependent on the amount of data used; mobile-only packages range from $10-$20, and laptop/tablet packages range from $2o-$40.

Garuda Indonesia: Having just joined the SkyTeam Alliance, Garuda now offers Avionics' WiFi service on its Boeing 777-300 ER aircraft, and plans to gradually introduce it on its domestic-and-international-route A330-200s and A330-300s, as well; the A330s presently feature OnAir's internet technology. Prices for Garuda's WiFi range from $11.95 for one hour to $21.95 for 24 hours.

Gardua Indonesia now offer WiFi on its
Garuda Indonesia now offers WiFi on its 777-300 ERs

United Airlines: United's fleet is fast becoming entirely WiFi enabled, via both its own in-house satellite system and Gogo InFlight. Its A319 and A320 are now almost 100% equipped and its Boeing 747-400 is 83% complete. At present, the the rest of its Boeing planes are only 6% complete, but all p.s. Premium Service transcontinental aircraft flying between New York (JFK) and both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) are now 100% WiFi-equipped.

Singapore Airlines: This airline has begun to feature OnAir's mobile and internet technology on its A340, A380 and Boeing 777-300ERs, offering volume-based (e.g., $9.99 for 10 MB) or time-based (e.g., $11.95 for 1 hour) plans.

Singapore Airlines offers WifI on its
Singapore Airlines offers WifI on its A380s and 777-300ERs

West Jet: This Canadian airline started rolling out Panasonic Avionics inflight entertainment system and WiFi last month. (The entertainment options will feature live-streaming TV channels, packaged TV series, movies, magazines and more, some free and some not.) Using a satellite-based web connection, the airline will offer WiFi to every destination they serve, and will provide USB and 110 volt plug-ins to power devices. They've already begun updating their 800-series aircraft, a process they hope to complete within the year; it will then take them a few years to install service on their fleet of more than 100 Boeing 737 NGs.

Airlines with Future Plans for WiFi Service

EVA Air plans to begin outfitting its fleet with WiFi this year, and while at present no timelines have been announced, Cathay Pacific and Finnair soon hope to begin WiFi-equipping their fleets, as well.
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Featured image by JetBlue's Fly-Fi is the fastest WiFi in the sky