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Growing Pains for Gogo as It Upgrades Its Network

Oct. 11, 2016
5 min read
Gogo 2Ku WiFi featured
Growing Pains for Gogo as It Upgrades Its Network
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It's hard to imagine now, but in-flight Wi-Fi was first introduced by Gogo just eight years ago. In less than a decade, this amenity has gone from being a luxury to a necessity as more and more travelers expect to be always connected. The issue is that some in-flight internet providers haven't been able to keep up with customer expectations. The growth in demand has outstripped technological advances, and Gogo is scrambling to catch up.

If you follow @thepointsguy on Twitter, you may have seen that TPG had a abysmal experience using Gogo on-board a recent American Airlines flight.

That's right, TPG experienced slower than 28k modem dial-up speeds on a flight over the continental United States. Websites and apps aren't adapted to connect at a speed more suited to the 1990s than 2016, so virtually nothing could be accomplished on a cross-country flight from Miami (MIA) to Las Vegas (LAS). Sadly, this was far from the first time TPG (and countless other travelers) has had such an experience.

After this particularly negative experience — and the poor customer service TPG received from Gogo during the incident — we reached out to the company to specifically ask what speeds customers should expect on flights. While surely 0.02 Mbps shouldn't be normal, we want to have realistic expectations going into our next flight. Gogo's response was as follows:

Original ATG is at 3 Mbps, ATG-4 is at 10 Mbps, Ku is about 30 Mbps and 2Ku is capable of 100+Mbps.
Right now, a majority of the planes are ATG-4, around 10 percent are on Ku and more than 15 are on 2Ku.

This is a helpful explanation of the internet speeds that Gogo-enabled aircraft are capable of connecting at, but doesn't help us know what to expect. To be fair, Gogo connection speeds are going to depend on a few factors: type of technology installed (ATG, ATG-4, Ku and 2Ku), number of users connected and location of the aircraft.

The problem with the current Gogo network is that most planes — around 90% — are connecting using Air-To-Ground (ATG) systems. As Gogo stated above, the best of these connections currently top out at 10 Mbps. For reference, that's twice the speed Netflix recommends for streaming HD video. But, that's the fastest the connection gets, and that connection must be shared by all users on the aircraft.

When many passengers are connected, speeds can drop drastically.

Even if a handful of users are trying to stream videos, this 10 Mbps connection speed is going to be quickly tapped out. Now, imagine a plane full of T-Mobile customers all trying to use their one hour of free Wi-Fi. These ATG systems aren't designed to handle such heavy demand. In-flight internet systems are designed to auto-throttle speeds so that all active users get about the same experience. So, more users means automatically slower speeds for everyone connected.

Gogo's ATG speed issues have gotten so bad that earlier this year American Airlines sued Gogo to get out of its contract. American Airlines planned to replace Gogo with the satellite-based ViaSat. While the lawsuit was dropped, this move likely spurred Gogo to hurry along the implementation of its satellite-based 2Ku system.

TPG Editor Zach Honig's test on board Gogo's 2Ku test aircraft.

TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig had a chance to test Gogo's new 2Ku system this past March. With 51 total connected devices, the 2Ku Wi-Fi system delivered a strong 16 Mpbs connection at cruising altitude. The problem is this 2Ku system is just now being rolled out. Through early August of this year, 2Ku systems had only been installed on 10 aircraft.

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Gogo pointed out in its statement to us that 2Ku is now installed on 15 Gogo-enabled planes. Best case, Gogo hopes to have 500+ aircraft with 2Ku installed by the end of 2017 with a total of 1,300 aircraft currently in the backlog to get this system upgrade. Airlines that have signed on to get 2Ku include Air Canada, American, British Airways and Delta.

JetBlue has ViaSat "Fly-Fi" installed on almost all of its aircraft.

Gogo is just now playing catch-up to systems like ViaSat — the Wi-Fi system installed on most of JetBlue's aircraft, 300 of United's planes and 10 of Virgin America's planes. Instead of having a wide range of systems, ViaSat solely uses a more advanced Ka-band connection to deliver speeds of up to 70 Mbps per aircraft.

This speed is faster than what you'd find on all but 15 of Gogo-equipped planes. This means ViaSat users can expect a reliable speedy connection, rather than the Wi-Fi roulette currently experienced by Gogo users.

Bottom Line

As Gogo works to upgrade its systems, the internet speeds you're going to get on aircraft using this company's Wi-Fi are going to vary widely — depending on the type of system installed, number of connected users and the clarity of the connection. As more users pile on to antiquated systems, in the short term, the average Gogo experience is likely to be fraught with frustration.

However, Gogo is working hard to install the latest satellite-based 2Ku system on aircraft as quickly as possible. While this upgrade is in progress, Gogo-based internet performance is going to be hit or miss. If you need a reliable internet connection for your upcoming flight, you might want to opt for a flight on board JetBlue, Virgin America or United's ViaSat aircraft (mostly 737s) — rather than an American Airlines, Delta or Alaska flight.

What speeds have you been getting on Gogo recently?