Gogo, formerly known as Aircell, is quietly testing a Ku-band antenna at its Itasca, Illinois headquarters.
I saw the AeroSat-manufactured antenna, hooked up to all sorts of test equipment, when I took a little tour of said headquarters yesterday following a press event during which Gogo unveiled its new multi-media platform and wireless IFE solution.
Obviously, I asked Gogo execs what the devil they were doing with the antenna and why it was sitting alongside a big heaping radome looking oh-so-ready to be installed on an aircraft.
It turns out that the antenna will be mounted to an aircraft soon, but Gogo refused to say anything more about it, and did not allow me to snap a photo. Booooo. The antenna looked a little something like the one you see to the right.
Now then, as anybody who has been following this industry knows, a Ku-band antenna is the only thing that can support in-flight high-speed Internet on overseas flights right now.
Certainly, when Inmarsat’s Ka-band Global Xpress service launchesaround 2015, airlines will have the option of Ka. But Inmarsat’s current SwiftBroadband (SBB) aeronautical solution does not make the cut; it is simply not high speed no matter which was you slice it. Yes, you can do clever things with accelerator technology to make SBB faster. We’ll talk about that later. But even Aircell – which offers SBB-based connectivity to the business aviation market – will tell you that SBB-supported Wi-Fi does not make sense for a plane-load of passengers.
Key quote from Aircell CEO Michael Small:
“We do [offer] it on business aviation side. It’s a great product and it’s the best global solution, but at 432 kbps, it’s not enough bandwidth to service a commercial aircraft except for very low-speed applications like expensive phone calls or text messages. On a business jet, it’s usually one or two users so you can share 432 kbps one or two ways but you can’t share it 120 ways, which is what you often need to do on a commercial jet.”
Of course, that hasn’t stopped a number of airlines from offering SBB-based Wi-Fi to passengers, as the kit comes linefit on a number of Airbus types. I wonder if, on reflection, they think it was worth switching the Wi-Fi on.
But clearly I’m digressing. The headline for this blog is – Gogo is testing a Ku-band antenna so let’s address that. Aircell rarely mentions Ku. It did admit in a recent press release that it will offer a Ku connectivity service to its airline partners IF they want to be able to offer service overseas before global Ka is available in 2015. In light of Aircell’s Ku testing, it would seem that at least one partner is interested. But who?
Gogo has racked up several customers for its air-to-ground (ATG) service in the United States including domestic fleet-wide customer Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, which is ramping up installs. Gogo also counts United and US Airways as customers for a portion of their fleets, though I get the strong sense that US Airways is giving careful consideration to extending equipage to other aircraft (praise the lord!). United, meanwhile, has been testing Row 44′s Ku system on a 757 testbed (in addition to offer Gogo on its transcon 757s) and has yet to make a decision on whether it wants ATG or Ku for its domestic operations or none of the above! [Note, the Continental portion of United-Continental has picked ViaSat/LiveTV's domestic Ka for implementation next year.]
Any of these international carriers could take the plunge and test Aircell’s Ku-band service on overseas flights, although I tend to see Delta as the most forward-thinking of the bunch.
In any case, with Lufthansa now offering Ku-band connectivity over the Atlantic through a partnership with Panasonic, US operators have further incentive to step up their game. And it would seem that Aircell is in a sweet spot to make that happen.