Written by Jason Rabinowitz
If a business wants to install Internet service at a new location on the ground, they simply call up the local phone or cable company and in a matter of days, the service is available. The process to get that same Internet in the air is quite a bit more difficult, with a whole bunch of hurdles along the way.
Long before any equipment is installed on any aircraft, significant government regulatory issues must be sorted out, starting with the Federal Communications Commission. The very first step in bringing Wi-Fi to the sky is getting the FCC to approve any antenna used in the system, as well as acquiring what is known as spectrum. Every wireless network must operate on a very specific set of frequencies, and the FCC must certify that the equipment used will not interfere with any other spectrum.
Once the FCC signs off on the equipment, the process starts all over again with the Federal Aviation Administration. No piece of equipment, large or small, can be installed onto an aircraft without the FAA’s certification. All equipment, especially the antennas and protective radomes used for satellite connections, must be tested to ensure they are safe for use in the air.
While the Air to Ground (ATG) equipment used by Gogo is small and placed on the belly of the aircraft, satellite antennas and their protective radomes are much larger, and must be placed on top of the aircraft. The FAA must certify for each and every aircraft type, be it a Boeing 737 or Airbus A340, that the radome will not damage the aircraft after sustaining damage, such as a bird strike. This process has proved to be one of the most difficult steps in the entire process to date.
Once all the regulatory hurdles are cleared, the physical aircraft installation takes place. The Gogo ATG system installation can be accomplished overnight, which means the aircraft does not exit revenue service for any period of time. ATG equipment is a much simpler install than satellite, which may take between three and five days to install. For airlines upgrading their existing ATG-4 service to Gogo’s new Ground to Orbit (GTO) solution, the new hardware can be added onto the aircraft while keeping the existing system in place, reducing upgrade costs.
To help reduce the downtime in the install process, the industry is working hard towards “line-fit” approvals for each aircraft type. Currently, most in-flight Internet systems must be retrofitted to already completed aircraft. When a system is line-fit approved by a manufacturer like Airbus or Boeing, the system can be installed while the aircraft is still in the factory so it will be ready from day one.