Gogo's new inflight wireless strong enough to stream You Tube, Facebook Live

NEW YORK—How strong is the new Gogo in-air Wi-Fi? From the skies over Vermont, it was good enough to broadcast Facebook Live — and strong enough for watching YouTube.

I conducted the Facebook Live session while flying 27,000 feet during a 90-minute test flight to nowhere, the purpose of which was to check out the latest Wi-Fi tech from Gogo, the largest provider of broadband in the skies. Along with fellow journalists, I boarded Gogo’s “Jimmy Ray” at Newark Liberty Airport, a Boeing 737-500 named after the company’s founder. The plane functions as an airborne laboratory.

Gogo wanted us to experience the faster speeds and Wi-Fi streaming made possible by an improved version of a satellite Internet system known as 2Ku. While 2Ku has existed for a while, Gogo has a new modem and is leveraging a recently launched high-throughput satellite from Intelsat.

You’re probably not going to be able to conduct a Facebook Live session from the skies the next time you fly on a commercial airline. Consider that a good thing—who wants all the passengers seated around you yapping to the folks on the ground?

What many air travelers do want, though, is fast and reliable in-flight Wi-Fi, whether they aim to get some work done or maybe just want to veg while streaming Netflix.

 

Gogo executive vice president and chief operating officer John Wade says the upgrade to the system permits Gogo to raise connection speeds to the aircraft in excess of 100 megabits-per-second, up from about 25 Mbps in the previous generation.

“It is significantly faster and (provides) significantly more capacity than has ever been brought to aviation before,” he says.

 

That's a potential boon to travelers whose experience with Wi-Fi on planes has been disappointing at times—so awful, in fact, that in early 2016, American Airlines sued Gogo, so that it could connect to rival ViaSat. American ended up dropping the suit, and remains a partner airline.

The current flavor of Gogo’s 2Ku is installed on 170 aircraft globally, 100 of which are Delta planes. Gogo also works with British Airways, KLM, Virgin America, among other carriers.

According to Wade, in about a year’s time, planes with 2Ku will get the latest tech.

Gogo won’t disclose how much airlines pay for such upgrades, but the cost to install the equipment and certify the technology is measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per plane.

The company says 1,600 aircraft, from 13 airliners, are committed to receive 2Ku, with most installations happening before the end of 2018.

The Facebook Live session would not have been possible on Gogo’s previous Wi-Fi service. Nor would some of the other things I tried, including the ability to stream the live Beats 1 radio station off Apple Music, and watch YouTube videos with minimal buffering.

I also successfully logged into my company’s VPN, communicated with coworkers via Slack, and started using the Wi-Fi as soon as I boarded the plane. Gate-to-gate Wi-Fi was also not available on the previous generation, Wade says.

 

Alas, my phone and laptop batteries drained pretty quickly. And as with any public hotspot, you'll want to be mindful of security on a plane and take the safeguards you would while surfing in a coffee shop or hotel.

During the test flight, not everything took off without a hitch. I found I could only briefly connect with a colleague via FaceTime video before such sessions dropped. We tried a few times before we finally gave up, raising doubts about whether I could pull off the Facebook Live.

So I was pleasantly surprised when the Facebook Live not only worked, but judging by comments from some of the nearly 50,000 people who watched, worked pretty smoothly. During the half hour Facebook session, I walked from the front to rear of the plane and back, visited the cockpit, and let viewers peek out the window. The connection never crashed and I'm told the audio and video came through with barely a snag.

Gogo’s stated mission is to meet a high-speed standard it refers to as “15,98,98,” providing each passenger speeds of more than 15 megabits per second, supplying more than 98% coverage of global flight hours, and being available more than 98% of the time.

Once we landed back at Newark, Gogo told us that we passengers collectively used 53 devices on the plane, accounting for 29GB of data. The maximum reported download speed was 93 Mbps; the upload max was a far pokier 8 Mbps, which would help explain the snags with the FaceTime calls.

The best speeds I saw during my own speed test (via Netflix’s Fast.com) was about 34Mbps down, still quite impressive. It remains to be seen, of course, how well the Wi-Fi will perform on a plane that's full.

It’s ultimately up to the airline to determine which Internet services to offer passengers and at what cost. FaceTime, Skype and Facebook Live, or even the ability to make regular voice calls would seem to be a long shot, at least in the U.S.

“It’s less controversial in other parts of the world,” Wade says. “We have to have the flexibility to allow airlines globally who are far more relaxed about voice calls to allow (them).”

The prices passengers pay for Gogo these days vary and the service is sometimes given away free to premium customers. A general range is between $10 and $20 for a session that lasts the length of a flight.

But Wade believes prices will become more affordable once the upgraded Wi-Fi services have been implemented. “As we can provide more and more bandwidth and more and more capacity, the cost for us to deliver an Internet service decreases,” Wade says. “Over time I think the traveling public will see the price of in-flight Internet come down at the same time that their experience goes up.”

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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