In-flight Wi-Fi and our insatiable appetite for bandwidth

Here in the United States, passengers are growing increasingly accustomed to having in-flight Wi-Fi at their disposal. Much of the credit for equipping the US fleet goes to Gogo, which in 2006 bought an exclusive 3MHz broadband license for air-to-ground (ATG) services; made the service cheap and cheerful for airlines (even financing installs); and, let’s be frank, is driving every last ounce of capacity out of its network.

However, Row 44 has also gained ground. Its Ku-band satellite-supported high-speed Internet solution is installed on some 100 Southwest Airlines aircraft, and installs are slated to ramp up in the coming months, according to Row 44. The California-based firm has also forged some pretty impressive IPTV and streaming video partnerships. These deals will play a crucial role as Row 44 readies for its next phase of development – a multi-media platform that seeks to duplicate in the air the type of entertainment and communication experience that passengers are accustomed to viewing and engaging in on the ground.

I received an early viewing of the new Row 44 platform at APEX and while I cannot tell you specific details (including the price points being mulled), it absolutely blew me away. Yes, I had a “holy shit” moment. I truly believe Southwest passengers are going to be awed by what they can see and do and how everything is packaged and priced; and the low-cost carrier has a real shot at generating ROI. A real shot.

Thumbnail image for big.JPGAnyone who reads this blog knows I am a huge fan of Gogo. I’ve started booking my flights based on whether or not the carrier offers Gogo fleet-wide. I flew a Gogo-equipped Alaska Airlines Boeing 737NG to APEX in Seattle, and I happily paid to access Wi-Fi on my Mac, while taking advantage of a free promo that allowed me to access it on my iPhone in exchange for giving my email address to a credit card company.

I suspect I’ll be receiving emails from that credit card company soon. But it will have been worth it. I was so bloody productive on that flight that my fingers never stopped moving. A flight attendant even stopped to take in the action, noting, in essence, that I was typing like a maniac (if this gig doesn’t work out, perhaps I could turn to secretarial work or the circus).

That said, Gogo’s network is clearly under strain. Since I live in the Matrix that is the TweetDeck, I monitor what people are saying on Twitter about Gogo. Lately I’ve been seeing the following types of tweets all too regularly:

“In flight wifi would be much cooler if it was fast enough to do anything. Brutal!”

“Flying somewhere over the middle of the country trying to download email with @Gogo but it’s as painfully slow as the #emmys last night.”

Those are some of the kinder negative tweets. Gogo recently admitted on Twitter that it does not support video so YouTube and Netflix are generally a no-go or a slow go.

That’s not to say that Gogo doesn’t have a plan. It will soon roll out ATG-4, which promises to be four times faster. Virgin America is the first airline to announce it will use the service.  

But Gogo’s options for expanding capacity do not end at ATG-4. Qualcomm has tabled a proposal to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use Ku spectrum for air-to-ground use in a shared manner, so it’s possible that we might see a tie-up in the future. “It’s possible” that the two firms could work together, says Gogo CTO Anand Chari, noting, however, that the Ku antenna being tested at Gogo’s Itasca headquarters has nothing to do with that process. Still, it’s pretty cool to think ATG could get a Ku boost.

Row 44, meanwhile, believes its larger Ku pipe to aircraft will have no trouble supporting all the high-bandwidth functionality it intends to offer through the multi-media platform. 

“We don’t run into bandwidth issues because we can turn on more transponders so our ability to add more beams throughout not only the country but around the world makes it virtually unlimited. In the aircraft, which has always been the question people have asked, we’ve seen upwards of 150 simultaneous users doing different things including streaming movies and all kinds of activities, so we’re not worried about that,” says Row 44′s head marketer Howard Lefkowitz.

“Having the big pipe and the ability to expand it is crucial to do things that are going to be coming down the pike as we go forward as bandwidth applications continue to matriculate ever upward.”

But are we insatiable, I ask? “Yes, exactly, we want more, more, faster, better, cheaper,” says Lefkowitz.

As such, Row 44 has a migration path to eventually offer Ka-based connectivity. But Lefkowitz doesn’t see a jump from Ku to Ka any day soon.

“The interesting thing about Ku and Ka is that Ka really doesn’t exist yet per say. It’s not commercially available. It wasn’t even designed necessarily for the mobile environment, particularly for a plane going 600 milers an hour. We are involved in it; we are engaged in it. We have a migration path including changing out the aperture and a few other items that we would be able to do. When it’s ready, if it’s ready, we will be there. We are developing it and engaged every day. The difference is there is a here and a now, and our customers realize that in order to compete they have to be engaged in the process. That’s why we have the migration path. Everybody talks about Ka. There hasn’t even been an application with the FAA or FCC to be able to do it.”

He likens talk about Ka to “talking about having a molecular reconstructor replacing the airline industry. So far it doesn’t exist but I’ve seen it on Star Trek.”

Thumbnail image for IPTV.JPGBecause of the nature of Row 44′s Ku-band pipe, the company’s business is not limited to Southwest Airlines and aircraft flying domestically in the United States. European operator Norwegian offers Row 44 on its Boeing 737NGs. SAS, on the other hand, intends to bring Panasonic Avionics’ competing Ku system, called eXConnect, to its fleet.

Panasonic has also secured partners for IPTV and showcased its own solution at APEX. Pictured left is Panasonic’s IPTV offering being tested on a BBJ testbed aircraft in flight.

Since a dedicated air-to-ground network does not exist across Europe, carriers in the region must choose between Ku or L-band-supported connectivity now or wait for Ka. But they now have a better choice of services in each band (and will have a choice in Ka as ViaSat and Inmarsat will compete against each other).

I’m going to talk about intra-European carriers’ options for in-flight Wi-Fi next week at the ERA General Assembly in Rome. If you’re planning to attend – or will be at Airline Business’ Alliances conference in Rome just prior to ERA – please flag me down, say ‘hello’, and let me chew your ear off about in-flight Wi-Fi. Because, like the growing number of bandwidth-heavy users in the United States, I’m just as hungry.

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2 Responses to In-flight Wi-Fi and our insatiable appetite for bandwidth

  1. Mushroom September 22, 2011 at 9:04 am #

    Thats a flattering picture!!

  2. Mary Kirby September 22, 2011 at 9:11 am #

    Hah. It is supposed to evoke a sense of ‘being insatiable’. More, more, better, faster, cheaper. :)