The option to send texts and even make calls while you fly is a gift that in-flight connectivity company Gogo is about to give to the world in 2014. However, this digital “bag of peanuts,” as Gogo CEO Michael Small calls the app designed to keep passengers happy, may be Gogo’s first and last service big enough to dole out to every seat on the plane.
Gogo's jet-propelled Internet lab. Gogo One test aircraft. Photo, courtesy of Gogo.
When Avionics magazine asked Gogo Chief Commercial Officer Ash ElDifrawi whether the company might ever take the leap passengers are bound to demand — namely, to providing free in-flight Wi-Fi — ElDifrawi was adamant in the negative.
“No,” he says. “People might want that, but the reality is, where in the world is there free, fast Internet? …We believe because [Text & Talk] is a pretty low bandwidth product that we’ll be able to find a way to let customers pay for it at reasonable prices that will be profitable for us.”
That means products that are not low bandwidth, such as Gogo’s current Wi-Fi offerings, are not slated to ever become as accessible and cheap as Text & Talk will be. And what about the possibility of free in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity one day? It’s not a possibility, actually, says ElDifrawi.
“You just can’t do that, it can’t happen,” he says. “I just read that Verizon is now having trouble in major cities because everybody is streaming videos on their phone, so they’re having to dial that back or put limitations [on video]. The challenges all of us have, ground or air, is to stay ahead of the bandwidth demand,” says ElDifrawi. “There’s limited bandwidth that you can’t make it free.”
The specific satellite technologies Gogo uses to provide Wi-Fi, however, are not as advanced as the satellites some commercial airlines, like JetBlue, are now providing; their system boasts enough bandwidth to distribute connectivity to all with some to spare. JetBlue CIO Eash Sundaram promises not only fast, but also free Internet for everyone in the plane during the launch period of a new in-air Wi-Fi service called Fly-Fi, launching this December.
“Think of Gogo that gets you 5 megabits per second for the entire plane, we get about minimum, minimum 2 megabits per second per customer so the bandwidth, when I tested the bandwidth it was much better than at home,” says Sundaram.
Sundaram’s idea of the future of connectivity is very different from ElDifrawi’s claim that “free” Wi-Fi could never be viable, even in a world where commercial airline ticket prices do not compensate for the cost of in-flight services. This never-possible scenario is subject to the capabilities of Gogo’s limited Ku-band and ground-based satellites, says Sundaram.
“Unlike most other airlines, we actually chose another path to launch; a partnership with ViaSat, [launcher of] a Ka-band satellite [ViaSat-1], which gives tremendous wireless bandwidth within the plane, almost like 15-18 megabits per second per user … the bandwidth that Fly-Fi offers, it’s not just text, it’s got extreme bandwidth,” says Sundaram.
Though JetBlue may be leaps ahead in terms of bandwidth, they do not outsource their services to other airlines, so they won’t face direct competition with Gogo’s market domination. Gogo’s new “bag of peanuts” may distract customers from their snack-sized bandwidth, for now.
In fact, the business aviation launch of Text & Talk, as of November 2013, has shown an increase in terms of general passenger demand, Wi-Fi included, for Gogo business customers.
“It’s increased [general demand], we’ve already seen it, a great response launching the product just a few weeks ago. … They want it all,” says ElDifrawi, regarding the trio of text, talk and Wi-Fi. “It is a bolt-on to our current service. It’s not an either-or, it’s an and.”
Gogo’s Text & Talk might also make a difference for flight operations, where airlines already use Gogo’s connectivity in the cockpit. Virgin America will be on board with Gogo’s new Ground-to-Orbit satellite connectivity as of mid-2014, and Delta has signed on for operational applications to connect flight attendants as well as a satellite-based solution for international in-flight connectivity. Airlines will have the option to leverage Text & Talk now too, whether they view it as distracting and decide to limit it, or they leverage it to help optimize operations.
Regardless of whether airlines jump on the new Text & Talk service, they are already looking to Gogo’s connectivity to provide customer-facing applications, such as bag-tracking services, flight and gate check applications and the like. Text & Talk, however, is the fastest and easiest-to-launch of all Gogo products. There are virtually no barriers to getting the service off the ground.
“For the airlines to be able to provide this to passengers without having to make a massive capital investment like they’ve had to historically to put picocells, or these little antennae towers in their planes, and now all you have to do is download an app and you’re off to go — it’s crazy. It is a massively disruptive, innovative technology, which we’re really proud of,” says ElDifrawi.
Gogo shared that several European and international airlines are interested in Text & Talk, though nothing is yet official.
For now, ElDifrawi hopes customers will be happy with Text & Talk, and they they’ll realize that “the ground is not the air” when it comes to connectivity.
“Despite what anybody tells you [in-air connectivity] is never going to be [like on the ground] and you have to manage the expectations of customers to say you can have a good experience in the air, and you can do a lot of great things, but it’s still in the air and it’s still a shared resource among you and the passengers that are with you,” he says.