Terrible, horrible, no-good very-bad airplane Wi-Fi could soon be a thing of the past...as airlines migrate to faster satellite service instead of piggybacking on terrestrial cell signals. But is it any good? Last week, I took an hour-long flight in a plane fitted with Gogo's new 2Ku satellite Wi-Fi. Here's what I found.
How can you tell if a plane has satellite Wi-Fi? This bump on top of the aircraft is a good start: the radar dome (aka radome) is where Gogo's satellite antennas are housed. As of today, Aeromexico is the only airline actively using the technology, but it's also coming to Delta, United and Virgin Atlantic, as well as Air Canada, Aer Lingus, Beijing Capital, British Airways, Gol, Heinan, Iberia, Japan Airlines and JTA.
This plane doesn't belong to any airline, though: it's a Boeing 737-500 used exclusively by Gogo for testing out the technology. In case you're curious, the tail number is N321GG (3,2,1, Gogo!) and you can view our flight path right here.
My first speed test: 1oMbps (megabits per second) down! Gogo used to share a 3.1Mbps connection with the entire aircraft, and here my laptop is getting triple that download speed just by myself. And that's only my first attempt: I saw 15Mbps speeds later in the flight. Let's try a harder test, shall we...
Yes, that's me playing a game of Hearthstone on my phone while browsing CNET at the same time! That's more impressive than you might think: Hearthstone is an online multiplayer game that needs a solid connection to show me which magical cards my opponents are using.
Still, that doesn't mean you'd be able to play Call of Duty over the connection. I saw 600ms ping, which is a fancy way of saying it took more than 6/10ths of a second for Internet servers to respond to my commands. That's not surprising: we were connected to a 3.5-ton satellite 22,000 miles above the ground!
The ultimate test: CNET, Netflix, Hearthstone, a 300MB Dropbox file upload and a 4K YouTube video all at the same time. Even landline connections might struggle with such a load, and Gogo's 2Ku Wi-Fi was no exception. The 4K YouTube video only worked for a few seconds at a time before the loading indicator started spinning, and the Dropbox file upload told me it would take hours to complete.
Still, everything technically worked, and some things worked quite well! Netflix did a great job streaming V for Vendetta and Hearthstone stayed perfectly playable during my airborne adventure. That's impressive.
So here's the bad news. It's pretty impressive to get four computers doing heavy-duty Internet tasks simultaneously from the sky... but that was with only a handful of journalists on the plane.
Today, Gogo 2Ku satellite Internet can offer a 25Mbps connection that has to be shared across the entire plane. That's way better than sharing a 3.1Mbps or 9.8Mbps connection (the ones Gogo offered before) but it still means the more people use it, the less there is to go around.
And that's just the download speeds: upload speeds are pretty terrible. That means you shouldn't expect to do any video chatting from the plane. (I tried to livestream my Gogo experience, but Facebook Live knew my connection wasn't going to cut it.)
The good news: Gogo VP Blane Boyton says that the only thing holding those speeds back is an easily replaceable modem -- and the company is already testing its successor. Gogo is seeing 70Mbps downloads on the new modem, which is theoretically capable of up to 400Mbps. And by the time you get to try 2Ku Wi-Fi, that modem might already be in place: Gogo expects to have 90 percent of its fleet using 2Ku by 2019, but the next-gen modem is actually slated to arrive as soon as next year.
One last picture: This is one of Gogo's old-school air-to-ground cellular antennas -- the ones that could soon be made obsolete by satellite technology.