Technology is now lighter, faster and cheaper
When Boeing first introduced the concept of in-flight Internet connectivity a decade or more ago, it was an idea ahead of its time.
At $1-million (U.S.) a unit installed, Boeing's Connexion system was overpriced. Passengers weren't thrilled with the slow connectivity, narrow bandwidth and cost, and the airlines quickly found the extra weight of the satellite transponder burned up more fuel than they were making in revenue.
The few airlines that did sign up soon pulled the units out, prompting others to ditch their plans to follow suit.
Fast forward 10 years and both Air Canada and WestJet have just announced they are rolling out wi-fi service for passengers on continental flights over the next year.
WestJet has signed a deal with Panasonic Avionic Corporation to provide what's billed as in-flight entertainment – a mix of free and paid services, which includes WiFi Web access – while Air Canada has partnered with Gogo Inflight Internet, offering similar services.
It's relatively affordable in this era of the in-flight $6 cheese sandwich and $5 beer. Gogo sells access directly for $60 a month or $16 for 24 hours' access over one year.
What's new this time around is that the equipment is substantially smaller, more powerful and, most importantly, considerably lighter. There are, however, some limitations around bandwidth, and, for now, the initial units are only effective over land, where there are cell towers in range.
Lufthansa, a long time leader in the market for this type of service (it was an early adopter of Connexion) now also has its own satellite-based system, which works over water; and Gogo, for example, is rolling out a hybrid cell-satellite system shortly, while private fleets are adding the technology as the price drops.
With 79 per cent of the market, Gogo is the market leader in in-flight Internet in North America, boasting 10 airline partners with more than 6,000 connected aircraft.
In some ways, it owes its success to the disastrous legacy of both Connexion and the demise of SkyPhone, the in-flight cell service, which was hugely overpriced. Gogo convinced federal regulators to auction off the spectrum and then entered the business in 2005 by winning 3Mhz of spectrum, building 90 cell sites and leasing space on towers in 48 states, said Anand Chari, Gogo's Chief Technology Officer. It launched its service with American Airlines in 2008.
Both the FAA and Transport Canada have also recently lifted restrictions on mobile devices using WiFi in-flight after concerns they would interfere with the aircraft's navigation or control systems proved groundless.
As airlines are looking to download their costs to passengers, having them provide their own screens for entertainment, the fact that airlines can upsell is both a revenue gain and a cost loss.
Gogo uses a standard cellphone frequency and now has grown those initial 90 cells – receiver-transmitter locations such as those used by cellphone providers – to about 250 sites. "We're also upgrading our technology on the ground, but, even then, it's not surprising that demand is outstripping supply," Chari said, as more mobile devices compete for bandwidth and access. "So we've come up with our own version of 4G technology, what we call ATG4, which has a more sophisticated antenna on the aircraft with dual band [one for transmitting and one for receiving signals], which gives a faster response."
About 25 per cent of Gogo's aircraft fleet are now using the ATG4 technology, which offers a robust 10 Mpbs of Internet speed, he said. (By comparison, the average download speed in Canadian homes is 8.3 Mbps.)
Looking ahead, Chari said, a hybrid system using a satellite on what is known as a ku-band frequency will drive connectivity to 70 Mbps for the North American fleet, opening up Internet streaming of TV shows and movies inflight.
Once away from land, cell connectivity drops but still provides enough for e-mail and some Web surfing. The current generation of ku-band satellite technology is single channel, he added, and Gogo is planning to go to a dual band next year, which will bump speeds back up.
On the horizon, faster and more sensitive antennas are promising more bandwidth, pushing 100 Mbps and more options. For airlines, it also means they can offer tiered menus, with some free entertainment, some base pricing and some premium pricing.
Better WiFi on board, regardless of Internet access, also means instead of having a limited number of movies and shows, airlines can archive a wider selection of options with unique pricing, especially since they already have their own screens.
Onboard systems that have 1 terabyte of server storage are now upgrading to 2.5 Tb. At an average of 1.5 gigabytes per movie, that's more than 1,500 titles, leaving plenty of space for TV shows on demand, something Gogo says will be like Netflix for the skies.
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