Gogo In-flight Internet Slows Down – Review

By Jonathan Spira on 4 June 2011
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The Gogo in-flight Internet service seems to be gaining in popularity, but that’s not necessarily a good thing if you are trying to watch a movie.  When we first tested Gogo shortly after its launch back in 2009 on an American Airlines flight from New York to San Francisco, we saw download speeds averaging 1.5 Mbps.  It was possible to watch videos and movies on the Web, watch recorded shows on my DVR at home using my Slingbox, and send and receive e-mail messages, including ones with large file attachments.

A little over one year ago, I reported in these pages that I was still getting an average download speed of 1.5 Mbps on transcontinental flights. Indeed, I pointed out then that this was faster than what I had found in some hotels where they didn’t have to figure out how to get the Internet signal to 35,000 feet.

Even seven and eight months ago, including flights on Virgin America and American Airlines, my colleagues and I were still seeing speeds close to that figure on flights.  Earlier this year, however, on my first two transcon flights of 2011, flying to San Francisco from New York on American Airlines, the picture was very different.

The fastest speed I was able to see was 0.44 Mbps – and it was far from consistent. Average speeds on the first flight were closer to 0.16 Mbps, approximate 10% of what I was previously getting.  On the return flight, I did see a little bit of an improvement, albeit only to 0.25 Mbps.

Videos were choppy and my Slingbox wasn’t happy.  On the other hand, I had no problem with e-mail and the sound quality listening to TuneIn Radio on my Apple was as good as it always was.

Fortunately, on my next three Gogo-enabled flights (the most recent of which were in the first week of May), the speed ranged from 0.49 Mbps to 0.74 and seemed to averaged around 0.5 Mbps, which was more than sufficient for my needs although far slower than I would prefer and far too slow for decent video.

What happened?  As I found out, Gogo is simply too popular.

Each aircraft gets 5 Mbps for the entire aircraft. As a shared resource, the more people who use it, the slower each person’s experience will be.  It’s important to note that the three most recent flights were on smaller aircraft, namely McDonnell-Douglas Super 80s (each airplane gets the same amount of bandwidth from Gogo, regardless of the number of seats) and that the flights were shorter, which could have resulted in fewer passengers purchasing the service.

I spoke with Anand Chari, Aircell’s vice president of engineering, to learn more about the reasons I might be experiencing slower speeds.

“On both of your [transcon] flights,” he told me, “we saw a large number of simultaneous users, which means throughput for users was slower than normal.”  He added that both of my flights “flew over networks with very high demand in traffic volume.”

Aircell isn’t sitting still, however.  Later this year Aircell will release ATG-4, an enhancement to the current ATG (air-to-ground) network.  ATG-4 will increase the capacity per aircraft by a factor of four.  The system is backward compatible and inexpensive upgrades are available for aircraft with the current ATG technology.

Starting in 2013, Aircell will deploy Ka-band satellite technology, which will augment ATG-4.  The Ka-band technology will also allow Aircell to eventually offer service outside of the continental U.S.


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