Why your in-flight Wi-Fi stinks

When you think of in-flight Wi-Fi, you’re probably thinking of GoGo because it’s pretty much one of the few services available to us.

Unfortunately it’s hard to find someone who has consistently had a good experience using GoGo or one of its competitors.

In the United States, in-flight Wi-Fi basically works like a your phone’s carrier service. A little over 200 towers in mostly remote locations in the United States transmit data to an antenna on an aeroplane.

Basically, the plane is like a giant smartphone hurtling 500 miles per hour through the sky.

That signal is then transmitted to your connected devices via a Wi-Fi router, just like at home.

Most planes in the US use GoGo’s air-to-ground network, called ATG. It’s capable of transmitting up to 3 megabits per second (Mbps) to a plane. That’s enough if you just want to to browse through social media and write emails, and it could even let you stream some video, maybe. But compared to wired broadband like you get from your cable company, 3Mbps is pitifully slow. Even worse, you have to share that relatively low bandwidth with everyone else on your plane.

If a plane can hold 100 passengers and every passenger connected to GoGo, that measly 3 Mbps will be divided to a crawl that’s probably slower than the old Edge network the preceded 3G. Just think how slow your internet would be if you had a hundred roommates, or even five, with 3 Mbps from your internet service provider.

Of course, it depends on other factors like the quality of the Wi-Fi router in the aeroplane that’s transmitting to your devices. There’s a finite amount of connections a Wi-Fi router can handle. Still, even if the router in your aeroplane can handle hundreds of connections, 3Mbps isn’t a lot.

I’ve never tried GoGo myself, mostly because I can’t bring myself to pay the exorbitant prices it charges. But I get a sense of what it’s like every day. When I take the commuter train in and out of New York City during peak rush hour, I can sometimes barely visit a website even with full signal on my AT&T phone. That’s because my carrier’s LTE signal is being divided amongst hundreds of people with phones connected to the same carrier in a concentrated, fast-moving mass.

The same thing is happening on an aeroplane with in-flight Wi-Fi.

GoGo has much better solutions available to airlines than its ATG and ATG4 networks, like its KU band system, which transmits data at a better 30Mbps. That’s faster than many wired broadband connections. But it’s up to airlines to give up the cash to replace the old ATG systems with the new KU systems on planes. So far, only 115 planes in the world use GoGo’s KU.

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