Written by Matthew Rothenberg
As air travelers grow accustomed to powering up their Wi-Fi devices in the air, their expectations for in-flight performance also rise. On a cross-country flight packed with laptops, tablets and smartphones, a slow Internet connection can be as frustrating as that toddler kicking the back of your seat.
Bandwidth has to come from somewhere – and when it comes to combining satellites and the latest version of Gogo’s Air to Ground (ATG) technology, the sky’s the limit. The new service is called Ground to Orbit, or GTO.
The net result of GTO: speedier Internet performance for the end user and better operational benefits for the airlines.
Since it launched its network in 2008, Gogo has installed more than 2,000 commercial systems across nine airlines, said Anand Chari, Gogo’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. And every day, 40,000 users on those planes expect the kind of Internet connectivity they enjoy everywhere else. “Consumers want an experience exactly like what they have on the ground,” Chari said.
That can get tricky, since getting bandwidth to the plane is a complicated business. Even the sophisticated ATG-4 system Gogo recently introduced to triple bandwidth to the plane has limitations. “ATG-4’s limitations include geography – you can’t put a tower on the ocean – and, to some degree, you are limited by the amount of [broadband] spectrum the government allocates for this type of service,” Chari said. “So we have been rapidly developing new technology to bring more bandwidth to the plane.”
One important advancement for in-flight wireless has been the development of Gogo’s GTO technology, Chari said. In fact, early efforts to provide passengers in-flight connectivity focused on satellites. Chari pointed to Connexion by Boeing, a GTO program the aerospace manufacturer introduced in 2000. The program required the installation of a satellite dish on the roof of each plane, which created more drag on the aircraft in flight, and the price was prohibitively expensive. Participating airlines soon abandoned the experiment.
While the cost of using satellites for in-flight connectivity services has come down, there are still some challenges to using theme for two-way communications – or to send and receive data. “If you are beaming a signal to a satellite, that beam has to be focused enough not to interfere with other satellites in sky,” Chari said. To avoid this, “the satellite antenna has to keep moving, tilting and panning. If you run a data speed test, you’d discover that satellite connections can receive in significantly more data than they can send out.” This is true of most Internet connections, but it is especially pronounced when using satellites for in-flight connectivity. Since the distance from a plane to a satellite in orbit is much greater than its distance from an ATG tower, the latency is also much greater, and performance suffers as a result.
Gogo’s solution: Employ satellite dishes on the top of planes exclusively to receive data, not send it. Gogo projects that they bring peak data rates of up to 70 Mbps. The return connection to the ground will be handled by Gogo’s ATG-4 network. By focusing the satellite side of the equation on receiving data only, Gogo can optimize operational efficiencies while maximizing performance.
According to Gogo’s Chari, the company’s GTO solution will make its debut the second half of 2014 aboard Virgin America.