Satellite broadband providers are launching next generation in-flight Wi-Fi networks. TechWeek takes to the skies to test out Gogo’s office in the sky
In-flight Wi-Fi and on-board roaming networks are helping to eliminate air travel as the final refuge of those wishing to avoid phone calls, text messages and the Internet. But an increasing number of airlines now offer mile-high connectivity, allowing people to stay in contact and do work on the go.
Boeing has started installing in-flight Wi-Fi from ViaSat as a factory option, while British Airways will be among the first airlines to offer services from Inmarsat using a new S-band satellite called Europasat.
It’s fair to say that many in-flight services leave a lot to be desired, with patchy connections enough to send and receive messages, but not stable or powerful enough for video streaming or run enterprise applications.
Satellite operators hope a new generation of services will help cast off long-held perceptions of slow speeds, low capacity and high latency, and believe that there is a huge market to take advantage of – especially outside the US where adoption has been slower.
Gogo, which counts Delta and Virgin Atlantic among its customers, believes its ‘2KU’ system – specifically it’s antenna – can be a key technological differentiator in the battle to connect the skies.
“Satellite-based Internet systems have been around for 15 years, but all have used gimbal antennas, which are fixed and swing round,” Blane Boynton, Gogo vice president of product management told TechWeekEurope onboard the company’s test aircraft on a flight around the south of England.
“2KU uses a new type of antenna – a low profile phased array antenna. There are a series of discs that sit and look like two turntables that synthesise and meet.
“We get twice the efficiency than a standard gimbal antenna. That gets faster connectivity and costs that are more efficient. We’re now moving to a world where streaming movies is a reality. We’re really excited about the technology. It’s bringing the office to the air.”
Office in the air.
Gogo’s on board network offers maximum speeds of 20Mbps and upload speeds of 1Mbps. This upload speed is capped, partly because of airline requests to stop applications like Voice over IP (VoIP) that might irritate other passengers but also so the system doesn’t interfere with any other satellites. Just a one degree mishap can cause interference.
TechWeekEurope tested the network both on the ground and in the air and recorded average download speeds of between 4Mbps and 17Mbps, while upload speeds never exceeded 0.54Mbps. Unsurprisingly, a number of factors – even condensation on the exterior of the plane – can affect transmission rates.
Boynton promised that its test plane offered a similar experience to what passengers on a commercial airline would enjoy as it had carried out simulated tests for a full capacity jet.
“This is production hardware with production modem. We’re sharing the beam with approximately 20 other jets from Delta Airlines and others on their way back from Heathrow,” he said. “It’s a very representative test.”
While connection could be unreliable at times, it was possible to browse in the same way you would in the office and even stream Netflix and the two in-flight IPTV channels – which are broadcast on a separate virtual network so they don’t eat into passenger capacity. For airlines, they have a choice of whether to charge customers for the service or not and Gogo can even create custom portals.
Know your limits
Boynton said the added capabilities will mean sending attachments and light collaboration will be possible, but accepts there will always be latency limitations associated with satellite broadband – even if the technology is improving. Richard Branson’s OneWeb venture, for example, is looking to solve this issue by moving the satellites closer to Earth.
“Aviation connectivity will always lag but hopefully less so than in the past,” he said, noting that even terrestrial broadband connections have disparities between download and upload speeds, even if latency would remain a problem. “We see one sixth to one tenth of the download channel [as realistic]. 600ms is realistically the fast we can do [with latency].”
With such latency challenges, it is unlikely that all cloud applications can be used above the clouds.
There’s also the issue of security, always a pressing concern within the industry. It has been suggested in-flight Wi-Fi networks could be hacked to control aircraft systems, but Gogo stresses that appropriate measures have been taken.
“We use commercial best practice security tools you would see in any data centre,” said Boynton. “The system itself is self-contained within the aircraft. The only data we receive is positional data to point the antenna.”
Wake me up before you Gogo
Gogo is confident its technology can give it an edge over its competitors by offering a superior service and allow airlines to update the system with incremental component upgrades. For example, 100Mbps might be possible in the near future, simply by swapping over an individual piece of hardware.
“We noticed that the gimbal technology was long in the tooth and made a bet and it paid off,” continued Boynton. “The system is performing better than anticipated.
“Another piece of our strategy is this open architecture. The 2KU is going to endure a few technology cycles, but we’re constantly looking at new modem and access point technologies. This is about getting payback for the airlines from expensive equipment.
“We want to show folks there’s hope, that the technology is finally maturing.”