The largest supplier of in-flight Wi-Fi is moving to a satellite system that will allow for much faster downloading of data, paving the way for vastly improved in-flight entertainment at speeds that are no longer similar to dial-up.
Wi-Fi provider Gogo announced in a press release on Friday that it has received Federal Aviation Administration certification to launch its new "2Ku" service.
Aeroméxico and Virgin Atlantic have already signed up to install the new service within the next few weeks, and five more airlines plan to equip their fleet as of 2017, it said. Delta Airlines is the largest customer in that second phase, with a commitment for over 250 aircraft.
"We are extremely excited by the progress we've made in bringing this technology to market," said Anand Chari, Gogo's chief technology officer. Instead of the current air-to-ground, cell tower-based system, the new service uses two low-profile antennas, one for downloading and one for uploading, resulting in a greater bandwidth.
"Rather than physically pointing toward the target satellite, these antennas create a beam in the desired direction by mechanically rotating a series of internal plates," Gogo explained on its website, adding that the antennas are about twice as efficient as other commercial antennas on the market.
Wi-Fi has slowly but surely been making its way onto trains, subways - even the summit of Mount Fuji and the International Space Station. So why has it taken so long to offer decent WiFi service on airplanes?
That's an especially good question when, according to a 2014 survey by Honeywell Aerospace, almost half the respondents "would be willing to give up another (traveling) convenience for Wi-Fi that's as fast as it is at home, such as enduring airport security twice."
The major hurdle has not been federal regulations or innovative technology. It's that passengers are unwilling to pay for their WiFi. With current per-flight pricing in the U.S. ranging from $10 to nearly $50, depending on type of device, flight duration and demand, it's clear why 90 percent of passengers opt not to connect.
"Most U.S. passengers simply expect Wi-Fi to be offered these days. What they are not prepared for, however, are slow speeds at high prices," confirmed Jason Rabinowitz, data research manager for Routehappy. "As a whole, the wide availability of in-flight Wi-Fi in the United States means airlines now must not only deliver on availability, but ensure that the system offered is fast enough to keep passengers satisfied."
No details have been released regarding 2Ku pricing.
Overall, though, the new, faster, satellite service should offer some savings for airlines, which will no longer have to provide expensive in-flight entertainment systems nor pay licensing fees for the content.
And passengers will get a broader selection from which to choose - with services like YouTube, Hulu, Netflix; and possibly even FaceTime and Periscope. Airlines have also committed to installing power outlets so that laptops and portable devices can be recharged.
Type 'A's, parents of small children, and electronics-obsessed teens will undoubtedly be breathing a sigh of relief at the thought of useable Internet on long flights. However, the news might not be welcomed by everyone.
"As a business traveler, the best thing about long flights is the lack of WiFi," opined one flier in a Lifehacker comment section on the pros and cons of airplane connectivity. "I always enjoy the excuse to buy some magazines and a new paperback and not feel guilty about it," wrote another.
Also worth noting: According to the Honeywell survey, "Thirty-two percent of respondents would be embarrassed if an in-flight neighbor caught them watching cat videos." So use your technological upgrade wisely.