Chicago-based Gogo, a provider of broadband connectivity services for the aviation industry, debuted its next-generation satellite technology this week during a series of flights on a Boeing 737. The company expects to launch the technology, 2Ku (pictured), to commercial clients over the next few months. The new Wi-Fi is about seven times faster than current in-flight Wi-Fi speeds, according to Gogo.
Gogo powers Wi-Fi connections on two-thirds of North American airplanes. 2Ku uses satellites and onboard antennas to help planes receive 70 Mbps connections, about four times faster than most home broadband connections.
Even though that connection has to be divided among a plane full of passengers, Gogo said that when 40 devices are connected simultaneously, flyers have been averaging speeds of about 12 Mbps, or about the same as with a 4G connection. The antenna’s spectral efficiency will better enable streaming video for passengers, Gogo said.
Gogo went with satellites because it owns only a small percentage of wireless spectrum -- 3 MHz, compared to the 30 MHz of spectrum owned by Verizon for its 4G LTE network. That narrow pipe led Gogo to switch to satellites, even though they’re expensive to operate and can be plagued by coverage problems.
Gogo said its antenna can overcome those limitations. The 2Ku antenna is about twice as spectrally efficient than other antennas in the commercial aviation market, which means it will produce more bandwidth for less money, according to Gogo. The antenna is four-and-a-half inches tall, which the company said reduces drag on the aircraft compared to similar products. This could be a boon in tropical regions where other satellites "degrade significantly due to restrictions associated with operating at high skew angles."
We reached out to Chris DePuy, an analyst with Dell’Oro Group Inc., to get his thoughts on the 2Ku antenna. Deputy said it sounds like an interesting product as long as the promises of in-flight 4G connections hold up.
"This isn’t about making Wi-Fi faster, although I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt," said DePuy. “It is about getting more bandwidth from the plane to the birds. That’s something I’d pay for."
2Ku uses mechanically-phased-array antennas that, instead of physically pointing toward the target satellite, create a beam in the desired direction by mechanically rotating a series of internal plates with carefully designed resonance characteristics. Because the antennas are symmetric in design, they emit a symmetric beam shape. Compared to gimbaled antennas that each rotate on a single axis, they are more aerodynamic.
2Ku will appear on a couple planes this year and a few more in 2016, but most of its installations will take place in 2017 and 2018. The company must first clear the logistical hurdles of installing the antenna hardware, as well as ensuring regulatory compliance for safety and security.
Since Gogo announced 2Ku last year, eight airlines representing more than 550 aircraft have been testing the service.