How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

From Flight Club: When you board a plane these days, the availability of WiFi connectivity is something we're beginning to expect, right along with the TSA full-body rub down and the fussy toddler kicking our seat for four hours. But while it's becoming common, the complexities of inflight WiFi and the variety of connection options are downright staggering.

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Pending approvalOriginal post by Paul Thompson on flightclub

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

When you board a plane these days, the availability of WiFi connectivity is something we're beginning to expect, right along with the TSA full-body rub down and the fussy toddler kicking our seat for four hours. But while it's becoming common, the complexities of inflight WiFi and the variety of connection options are downright staggering.

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

(Full disclosure: I attended the event at the invitation of Gogo. They took care of my travel expenses, but they sadly couldn't offer a secret password that would get me super high-speed wifi in flights as a bribe so all information shared here is of my own free will.)

This week, in-flight connectivity and entertainment provider Gogo invited several media members to visit its corporate headquarters in Itasca, Illinois for an all access tour, because a bunch of plane journos don't just all find themselves in Itasca very often.

Gogo provides WiFi connectivity to many of America's airlines, including Alaska, American, Delta, United, U.S. Airways and Virgin America. Over 6,000 commercial and business planes worldwide have connectivity provided by Gogo.

What Kind Of System Are You Using?

Interestingly, the experience can and does differ, depending which airline and even which aircraft you're on, because not all airplane WiFi is created equal.

  • Air-To-Ground (ATG) - delivers peak speeds of 3.1Mbps, using cellular-based technologies. It operates in the 3GHz spectrum, beaming 3G signals from the ground into the sky from over 200 towers within the U.S. and Canada. 1,500 commercial aircraft use this somewhat obsolete system, likely including those old MD-80s on their way out to the desert.
  • ATG-4 - the next generation air-t0-ground technology, launched in November 2012. American, Delta, U.S. Airways and Virgin America have this on a select number of their planes. It bumps the potential connection speed up to 9.8Mbps by using a directional antenna which more-efficiently captures the beam being sent up from the tower at ground level.

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

Gogo's Ku antenna, built by Thinkom.

  • Ku - Rather than having an antenna mounted to the bottom of the plane, receiving a signal from the ground, Ku is actually a 12-18GHz band within the microwave frequency spectrum. For Ku connectivity, an antenna is mounted onto the top of the plane, under a radome. The antenna transmits data rates at 10-30 Mbps to the aircraft. Gogo Ku is currently installed on 15 international Delta Air Lines planes, and some Japan Air Lines planes as well.

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

Ku coverage map, showing Japan Air Lines routes.

  • Ground to Orbit (GTO) - a hybrid technology that Gogo unveiled last September, promising speeds of 60 Mbps or higher, for planes flying in North America. It uses a combination of a satellite antenna on top of the plane to receive the signal and the ATG antenna under the plane to return the signal to earth. So technically, it's Orbit to Ground, but that's not nearly as catchy. During a speed test demonstration for us, download speed peaked at 46.52 Mbps.

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

Gogo 2Ku antenna, the Thinkom ThinAir Falcon Ku3030 - Image via Gogo

  • 2Ku - the next generation of connectivity, to roll out in mid-2015. Gogo says it will deliver speeds topping 70 Mbps. It uses dual Ku antennas — Thinkom's ThinAir Falcon Ku3030. One antenna will receive the signal and transmit it to the aircraft, while the other will transmit the return link to the ground. It will also go on top of the plane, under a relatively thin 17cm high radome. The radome height is important, because the higher it is, the more fuel-burning drag it creates.

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

If you ever called someone from a plane and said "Hey! Guess Where I am! I'm calling you from a plane right now!" — that call was probably made from an AirCell phone mounted to the back of the headrest on the seat in front of you. The AirCell idea was spawned in 1991, when company founder Jimmy Ray came up with the idea of using cellular technology to develop a phone system for planes. He wrote the idea down on a napkin at a BBQ joint in Texas,.

AirCell later became Gogo, as the company acquired its FCC spectrum license in 2006, then developed and deployed its first ATG broadband system to commercial aircraft in 2008. The company has over 400 employees at its offices in Itasca and Broomfield, Colorado. It's experiencing such growth that its headquarters will be moved to downtown Chicago in 2015. It's worth nothing that Gogo has yet to turn a profit, but they said this is largely due to their choice to invest revenue back into infrastructure, research and development. The company has a massive portfolio of products that not only includes WiFi, but also inflight entertainment products. "It's still early in this industry. We don't want to BetaMax ourselves," CEO Michael Strong told us.

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

Gogo's National Operations Center

Throughout our tour, we literally had access to everything. There was nothing we weren't allowed to photograph or ask about. Their National Operations Center (NOC) serves as the mission control, operating 24/7. Inside the NOC, they have visibility to everything from the weather to how many users were online at that exact moment, how long the login process is taking, and what types of devices they were using. They could view any potential dead zones in coverage, or help troubleshoot issues with a passenger or an airline.

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

Gogo's Social Media Command Center

Gogo is huge on social media, as its customers are largely tech-savvy and turn to Twitter to voice an issue or complaint. Gogo told us their average response time is about 4 minutes, no matter the time of day. "We take customer care very seriously. We'll never lose one over 10-15 bucks," they said. They even educate customers who call with complaints, rather than just issuing an apology and a refund. For example, they had a consistent caller who complained he could never get work done during his flights. They walked through what he was trying to accomplish, and it turned out he was trying to work via remote desktop, which is very bandwidth-heavy. So Gogo advised their product just wasn't robust enough to meet what he was doing.

Gogo told us they average about 70-80 thousand user sessions per day, meaning people who actually log on and use the service. We calculated that number to be about 7 percent uptake, or 7 of 100 people who had access to it actually used it. We should keep in mind that a lot of people don't see the need to use it on shorter flights.

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

Radome to cover Gogo equipment on a Boeing 767

We also visited their shipping and receiving facility in Bensonville, Illinois. At this FAA certified site, Gogo receives all equipment that is sent in for repair, tests it, fixes it and ships it back to the airline. The FAA certification was needed because every part of any equipment that goes on a plane has a paper trail, showing when and where it was worked on and by whom.

How In-Flight WiFi Works And Why It Should Get Better

2013 infographic depicting Gogo usage, courtesy of Gogo

I've heard people on planes remark that "a wireless router is like fifty bucks! Why's this so expensive?" My tour certainly taught me a lot. For one, that I need to study a lot deeper into the technical side of the aircraft industry.

Like the act of flight itself, the capability of harnessing atmospheric energy waves and using them for something as simple as posting a tweet seems so hard to fathom. I know it's something I'll never take for granted, but I'll definitely appreciate all of the advances made as the industry matures.

All images are by the author, Paul Thompson, unless otherwise noted.

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