Gogo is keenly aware of its reputation as a lousy airplane WiFi service.
Customer complaints abound online. American Airlines once sued the Chicago based company for poor speeds (though later dropped the suit). And CEO Michael Small has publicly acknowledged the company’s slow internet connections.
In fact, customer satisfaction is displayed front-and-center inside Gogo’s downtown Chicago office. In a main walkway at Gogo’s 111 N. Canal St. headquarters sits a large video screen that displays social media sentiment in real-time. Green circles indicate a positive social media comment, red means someone isn’t pleased, and the size of the circle shows the online influence the poster has.
“There were some very real limitations in the past,” Boynton said. “The Air-to-Ground network became capacity constrained because the system was being utilized so heavily.”
Gogo’s Air-to-Ground network offers internet speeds of 10 megabits per second–roughly half the download speed of Verizon’s 4G–and many of Gogo’s planes only offer a max of 3 Mbps. In other words, if you think the internet on your phone is slow, you’re moving at a snail’s pace with Gogo.
But 2Ku looks to change all that. 2Ku, which uses antenna technology that came out of the defense industry, will offer speeds as fast as 100 Mbps, meaning you’ll be able to stream Netflix, listen to Apple Music, watch Facebook Live videos or do pretty much anything you’d want on the internet in the sky.
It’s a major undertaking for Gogo–and a time-consuming one. So far Gogo has equipped around 170 of its partnering planes with 2Ku since officially launching the service last year; Gogo works with more than 3,000 aircraft across 13 airlines, including Delta, British Airways, and Virgin Atlantic.
Boynton said the goal is to equip between 450 and 550 airplanes with 2Ku by the end of 2017. Around 1,600 planes have committed to installing 2Ku.
Gogo was founded in 1991 and has grown to be the market leader in in-flight WiFi with 80% market share. It went public in 2013, and relocated from its suburban Itasca headquarters to downtown Chicago in 2015.
The company was awarded a US Federal Communications Commission broadband frequency license in 2006, and it appeared on a commercial flight for the first time in 2008.
In its early days, people were thrilled to be able to connect to the web from an airplane, Gogo COO John Wade said. But the novelty of surfing the web at 30,000 feet wore off as consumers grew frustrated with slow speeds.
“The public today has gone from being in awe less than 10 years ago about the fact you could go online, to now taking it for granted that they should be able to and they’re frustrated when the experience is less than they would like,” Wade said. “In some ways it’s very flattering and reassuring because it says were in the right business. But clearly it’s not good enough from a company perspective that your flying public feels that the internet today on an aircraft is not acceptable.”
Connecting passengers is a major priority for Gogo, but better streaming and faster web surfing aren’t the only things that benefit by improving in-flight WiFi. With 2Ku, pilots will have better access to information that assists them in making flying decisions, Wade said, like landing charts and weather apps.
The plane itself collects huge amounts of data; the average 787 generates half a terabyte of data per flight, and there are thousands of sensors and hundreds of computer systems on each aircraft, Wade said. By utilizing this data airlines can, for example, perform predictive maintenance and identify an engine failure before it occurs.
It’s the kind of problem being looked at by Chicago startup Uptake, the $2 billion predictive analytics startup launched by Groupon founder Brad Keywell. Wade said Gogo has had conversations with Uptake but wouldn’t say if anything has materialized beyond talks. Wade did say however that predictive maintenance is the “holy grail for aviation.”
So while the rollout may be slower than some like, Gogo says faster in-flight internet is coming.
“When we’re done, you will not be able to find an airplane that does not have the internet. When we started, you could not find one that did,” Wade said. “How often in your career do you get to irrevocably change an industry as big as aviation? That will be Gogo’s legacy.”