Sports Travelers Can Look Forward to Better In-Flight Wi-Fi
23 Sep, 2015By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Upgrades to Service Expected to Allow for Improved Connectivity, Video Streaming Capabilities
Travel teams, personnel and parents spend a lot of time in the air. And right now, those passengers’ opinion of in-flight wi-fi is about the same level as their thoughts on baggage fees and charges for food. The fact that they’re paying for what is seen as inferior connectivity is just one more grating thing, and they haven’t held back on the complaints.
Fortunately, airlines are listening, according to Travel Weekly. Three major providers of wi-fi for aircraft have announced they are updating their systems to achieve substantially higher bandwidth.
The upgrades can’t come fast enough for travelers who log in upon take-off or those with an appetite for streaming video. And both of those groups know only too well the limitations of airplane wi-fi — with the notable exception of JetBlue, whose wi-fi ratings have been far more positive.
In fact, in an analysis last January, the website Routehappy, which ranks flight amenities worldwide, concluded that on just 1% of flights was there wi-fi fast enough to stream video. Only JetBlue flights and portions of United Airlines’ domestic, Caribbean and North American fleet met Routehappy’s “Best wi-fi” standard.
Not being able to stream video? With all the youth sports teams airlines are carrying these days? Ouch.
News broke last week, however, that major players in the transit wi-fi industry will soon be rolling out technology innovations that should make fast airplane wireless connections less of an anomaly.
Cue the martyred sigh and the eye roll that, loosely translated, means “What took them so long?”
According to Travel Weekly, airline wi-fi in the U.S. is generally provided by one of the four primary companies in the market: Global Eagle, Gogo, Panasonic Avionics and Thales. From a numbers standpoint, Gogo is the industry leader, controlling more than 70% of the domestic U.S. market share, according to company spokesman Steve Nolan. Gogo’s air-to-ground and space-borne satellite systems are deployed on 11 airlines, including Delta’s and American’s domestic flights and a portion of United’s domestic flights.
And within the next 12 months, Gogo, Global Eagle and Panasonic Avionics all plan to roll out systems they say will increase bandwidth several-fold, offering the possibility of faster Internet connectivity for passengers on Delta, American, Southwest, United and their many other airline clients. In addition, the wi-fi providers say, the improved services won’t come at an additional cost.
Passengers will be happier when it doesn’t come at any cost, but that’s beside the point.
First up will be Gogo, which last month received approval from the FAA to begin flight testing its new 2Ku technology. The service employs two antennas on aircraft, rather than one, to deliver more bandwidth. Gogo’s officials said that planes equipped with 2Ku antennas will see peak wi-fi speeds of 70 Mbps, more than double what Gogo can offer on planes using its single-antenna Ku service.
The 2Ku service is expected to go live late this year, and Gogo said that seven airlines have already signed up to install 2Ku antennas on a total of 500 planes. Delta alone is equipping more than 250 domestic aircraft with 2Ku service. (In fact, according to ETNW, Delta is planning to upgrade wi-fi on more than 75 percent of its fleet in the near future.)
Officials say improvements should enable Gogo to change its present pricing structure, in which wi-fi prices are sometimes three or four times higher on flights that have high wi-fi demand than on flights that have low demand. That pricing strategy, they add, is designed to reduce wi-fi usage on the high-demand flights in order to increase the speed for those who still purchase the service.
Upgrades from Global Eagle and Panasonic Avionics won’t be far behind Gogo. Both companies said last week they are awaiting the deployment of new satellites by their provider, SES, later this year.
Known as High-Throughout Satellites, they will enable Global Eagle and Panasonic Avionics to deploy their Wi-fi signals via spot-beams targeted at areas of the world that get the most airline traffic. That deployment-efficient approach will enable Global Eagle to provide wi-fi speeds of 70 Mbps to its airline clients, including Southwest, according to officials at Global Eagle.
Panasonic Avionics said they will be able to deliver bandwidth as high as 200 Mbps to airline clients such as United, American and Lufthansa, while also lowering costs.
The new satellites to accomplish this are scheduled to launch over North America and the Atlantic in early 2016 and over Europe later in the year.
Planes that receive the new spot-beam wi-fi service should benefit as soon as they are airborne, say company officials.