Taking the Newest Airline Wi-Fi for a Spin
Passengers might be surprised at how many airline Wi-Fi providers are out there. There are four companies providing service to airlines here in the US alone. Several carriers even have more than one provider. But there's another company vying for a piece of that pie, and I got to try out its new product last week in Germany.
Inmarsat is a British company that got its start serving the maritime industry, primarily offering safety communications to ships at sea. But it's also been in the commercial aviation industry for over 25 years. You may remember hearing the company's name on the news, following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, just over three years ago. Its satellite was the last one to trace the doomed aircraft's location.
Inmarsat offers several products within commercial aviation, including high-speed broadband Wi-Fi for passengers. It's not available yet on US airlines, so a small group of aviation journalists was invited to Malta to try the new Ka-band service, known as Global Express, or GX. Inmarsat provides the satellite broadband stream, while Honeywell provides the antenna hardware on top of the plane, known as JetWave.
Our demo flight on Friday, March 17 was a regularly scheduled Lufthansa Airlines flight, number 1311, from Malta International Airport (MLA) to Frankfurt International Airport (FRA) in Germany. During the 2-hour, 28-minute flight, I sat in the very back row of the Lufthansa A321, beside Lufthansa Systems Director Project & Certification, Jan-Peter (Jan) Gänse. Also aboard were with us were Lukas Bucher, Head of Connectivity Programs at Lufthansa Technik, and Inmarsat PR Manager Robeel Haq. To avoid confusion here, Lufthansa Systems handles the technical side of things, while Lufthansa Technik handles the aircraft maintenance side.
Jan told me that GX is designed to work from gate to gate, but due to regulations in Malta, the system couldn't be available for use until we were above 10,000 feet. In his lap he had a large tablet that had all of the statistics about the hardware and its status. He let me glance at it as the system functions changed from red to green as they came online. We were at a little over 20,000 feet when it finally came up.
Once airborne, I was able to access Netflix using my iPhone 6s. I chose Episode One of "Breaking Bad" because it was one of the first things on the menu. After about a minute, it began playing. Though it was very pixelated at first, it quickly came into a crystal-clear picture, and did not stop to buffer for the few minutes that I watched it. Next I went to YouTube, and finally watched that viral video of the train plowing through the snow and covering unsuspecting people. That popped up quickly, and looked sharp as well. I also watched a live feed of April, that pesky pregnant giraffe. Even she looked sharp while stumbling around pitifully in her little cell.
Using the SpeedTest App, I clocked the download speed between 5-6 Mbps over multiple tests I performed. That's sufficient enough for most tasks you'd want to perform on a plane. Upload speeds were great as well, from 2.5 to 7.5 Mbps. Others in the group were able to successfully access and communicate through Snapchat Live and Periscope. One colleague was broadcasting on Periscope, but when I tried to watch the life feed, it wouldn't come up on my phone.
And that's about when the trouble began. We were all disconnected from the service, and those red bars began appearing on Jan's tablet. I noticed the one that remained red the longest said "Ground Station." All in all, GX worked for about half of the flight. During the lulls, we enjoyed some great Warsteiner Premium Pilsener, and had some social fun instead of having our noses glued to the screens of our devices. I even learned that our flight attendant in the back of the cabin had worked for PanAm!
One other point of frustration was that each time the system went down, we had to log in again to get back into the system. Other services don't require that, if your plane briefly loses connectivity as it switches between satellite signals. That has to be remedied to make it a more seamless experience.
It's really too early to hand in a final verdict. The service was meeting expectations pretty well, until it went down, then up and back down again. To be fair, the Global Express system is in beta mode, and they're working out the kinks. In the meantime, you won't have to pay for the service if you're on an equipped aircraft. I've tested other providers whose products weren't quite ready for primetime as well. Jan kept his cool during the flight, and expressed regret that it didn't work flawlessly for us. I do think it'll get there, and I'd love to try it again once it's fully ready for real-world use.
Disclosure: The trip was sponsored by Lufthansa Technik, which covered transportation, lodging and some meals. All descriptions and opinions in the above story belong to the author.