Image: Ari Magnusson

Image: Ari Magnusson

APEX Insight: APEX Media was on board Gogo’s Boeing 737 test lab this week to try its next-generation 2Ku in-flight Wi-Fi. The verdict: an impressive experience – comparable to a home broadband connection –thanks to a new modem and Intelsat’s 32e Epic NG high-throughput satellite, which combined, enable speeds of 100 Mbps.

This week, Gogo invited APEX Media on board Jimmy Ray, its Boeing 737 airborne test lab, to try out its next-generation 2Ku in-flight connectivity system. I was one of the 20 or so journalists on board the Jimmy Ray when it took off from Newark International Airport’s private terminal.

Gogo claims its upcoming modem, combined with high-throughput connectivity from Intelsat’s 32e Epic NG satellite, solves a throughput bottleneck, thus enabling performance of 100 Mbps per aircraft. “You are going to experience something that is a big step up from what you saw last time,” promised Anand Chari, Gogo’s chief technology officer, before boarding. Would such claims stand up to scrutiny? It was time to find out.

Once we reached a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, I started off with the OpenSignal app on my iPhone 6. It registered speeds between 30 and 55 Mbps – three to four times above my home broadband connection and above what Gogo’s current 2Ku system can offer. “Passengers are currently getting 15 Mbps with the existing service, and what you’re seeing today is just taking it to a whole new level,” explained Steve Nolan, Gogo’s vice-president of Communications and PR, during the flight.

In March 2016, APEX Media’s digital editor, Kristina Velan, attended another Gogo demo flight during SXSW in Austin. She tested Gogo’s initial 2Ku offering on board Jimmy Ray and reported speeds between 2.39 Mbps and 8.69 Mbps when testing on her devices.

Next up, I wanted to see how Netflix streaming would fare. Using my 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina, I played an episode of The Last Kingdom. The video player loaded immediately on Google’s Chrome web browser. Streaming was smooth, there was zero lag, although the quality was pixelated before upscaling shortly after. I wasn’t quite able to achieve high-definition video quality, but it was certainly more than watchable.

Gogo’s in-flight Wi-Fi allowed me to log on to a virtual private network (VPN) service, but this slowed down browsing speeds significantly. Accessing geo-blocked video content such as the BBC iPlayer just wasn’t possible.

“You don’t just have one layer of coverage, you may have two or three.” – Diane VanBeber, Intelsat

The final part of my nonscientific testing experiment was seeing whether I could connect with my APEX colleagues. This involved a Skype video call with my colleagues back in Montreal. Again, there was zero lag and sound quality was clear despite the hum of the jet engines. Video quality was somewhat more pixelated than a typical home broadband connection but acceptable. However, this may have been due to a plane full of journalists and engineers putting the system through its paces all at once. Accessing and sending e-mails on Outlook was a breeze, and sending smug in-flight smartphone pics via Facebook Messenger and Skype to friends and colleagues was instantaneous – no five-minute upload times.

All in all the experience was comparable to a home broadband connection – impressive stuff for anyone used to patchy air-to-ground in-flight connectivity. Speaking on board the aircraft with Diane VanBeber, Intelsat’s vice-president of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications. I learned that the impressive connectivity was thanks to its satellites, which were designed with high throughput over the zones with the highest amounts of air traffic. “We can layer these satellites over each other so you don’t just have one layer of coverage, you may have two or three,” she explained. “This gives you the density of coverage so that when you are over New York City or Chicago, you are not going to run out of capacity.”

“It’s a matter of months before passengers will start seeing the new modem.” – Steve Nolan, Gogo

Which brings up an important question: When will 100 Mbps speeds be the norm on Gogo-equipped flights? Three of Intelsat’s Epic NG high-throughput satellites are already fully operational, with four additional ones in the works. Gogo 2Ku is already flying on more than 170 aircraft on airlines including Delta, Aeromexico, GOL and Virgin Australia. A further eight airlines including Aer Lingus, Air France, Air Canada, British Airways, Iberia, Japan Transoceanic Air, KLM and Virgin Atlantic have signed up for 2Ku. This means more than 1,600 aircraft are committed to receiving 2Ku, and most installations are scheduled to occur before the end of 2018.

The upcoming modem will be installed on all new Gogo-equipped aircraft beginning in the third quarter of this year. The company says the process of retrofitting the existing 300 Ku- and 170 2Ku-equipped aircraft currently in service will take around one year to complete. “It’s a matter of months before passengers will start seeing the new modem,” Nolan said.

Ari is the news editor at APEX Media.