When I got on a plane to visit Orlando, Fla., earlier this morning, I thanked my stars when I found out that I was on a Delta flight with GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi. But after 30 minutes or so, the service became unusable.

Earlier this morning, when I got on a plane to visit Orlando, Fla., I thanked my stars when I found out that I was on a Delta flight with GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi. I had to wake up at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. to get to the airport and as a result was behind on my emails, tweets and blogging. A live connection would allow me to do it all. Once the plane was at cruising altitude, I signed up for the year-old GoGo service via a 30-day pass that cost me $30. Being the first one to sign on, I enjoyed a decent speed for the first 30 minutes or so, at which point the connection became unusable. GoGo became Oh no!

Why? Because more than two dozen people are sharing what is essentially a 3-megabit connection. I’m getting download speeds of 390 kilobits/second at best, and the upload speeds are even worse. I could handle slow speeds if the latency wasn’t so dismal; in various tests it ranged between 165 milliseconds and 275 milliseconds. I wonder how GoGo is going to offer movie downloads on its pokey little network. The arrival of LTE-based wireless broadband could change everything, of course, but I’m not holding my breath.

And therein lies the Achilles’ heel of in-flight broadband — for GoGo in particular. As more people start using the service more often, the end-user experience is going to degrade. And because GoGo uses cellular connections for backhaul, it can’t really go faster than the speed of cellular networks, which are notorious for their lack of latency. I think as more and more of our applications start demanding a semblance of “symmetric” broadband, services such as GoGo will start to lose their usefulness.

OK then — back to reading. This Wi-Fi thing clearly isn’t working out.

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  1. I think you mean to say this differently: “which are notorious for their lack of latency.”

    Considering you’re flying at 500mph+ and most of the country used to be on dial up not very many years ago, things could be worse than having 3.0mbs on a plane, right?

  2. I find the service a little spendy but even at it’s slowest speed, I’ve been successfully browsing and getting my emails taken care of. I would hardly say it’s garbage though, at least, not through my iPhone. Posting using gogo from Seattle to Atlanta ;-)

    1. Have to agree with you my experiences using GoGo have been good enough for emailing, IM’ing and browsing to pass the time… both from my computer and from iPhone

  3. Raymond Padilla Monday, January 11, 2010

    How big was the plane? I’ve used the service on four United p.s. flights. The connection was fantastic on the first round trip, partially because a lot of people — including UAL staff — didn’t know it was active. On the second trip it was noticeably slower, but still very workable. United p.s. flights use 757-200s, so it’s a big plane, but not a huge one.


  4. Om, do you think it was the folks watching video that contributed most to clogging up the pipe? It would be neat if GoGo partnered with large video providers (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Brightcove, others) to potentially cache popular content locally, freeing up bandwidth for others. — Not a terribly innovative solution, but maybe a bandaid in the short term?

  5. Om, the problem has nothing to do with “symmetry.” It has everything to do with bandwidth hogging by users and the applications they run.

    390 Kbps is far more bandwidth than is needed to engage in ordinary Web browsing, stream audio, or even stream pretty good non-full-screen video. (Perhaps you were trying to do too many things at once or were running an application that hogged your share of the bandwidth.) And latencies of 200 ms, while not super-fast, are quite reasonable given the logistics of delivering bandwidth to a moving plane.

    Methinks the real problem is that people are greedy. They expect (and run software that expects) infinite amounts of bandwidth at zero cost — and expect providers to be able to get backbone capacity and wireless spectrum at zero cost (which they can’t).

  6. P.S. — If everyone on the plane were running the speed tester you show in your screen, the network would SURELY bog down, since those tests — by their very nature — hog bandwidth.

  7. I used the GoGo service once and was quite impressed by the ability to achieve such low latency (100-200ms) and decent bandwidth, uninterrupted, while in the air. I was able to keep (and use) SSH sessions throughout the entire flight without being disconnected.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a few dozen people to share 3mbps; in fact, my previous workplace of 40 people shared a 1.5mbps DSL line with few issues. It’s just a matter of shaping the traffic properly.

    I suppose you’ve never used the “13€ per 3 hour” wifi on an European train before; if you think sharing 3mbps is bad, try sharing a fluctuating 3G/EDGE connection with a dozen other people and 2000+ ms latency :)

    1. Oh No X 10 it seems like :-)

  8. I think it’s time they implemented tiered quality services. Eg. pay $60/mo and get a piece of 2Mbps. Pay $30/mo and get a piece of 750kbps. Pay $10/mo and get a piece of the remaining 250kbps. Of course, less people are willing to pay $60 than $10, so everyone who is not in a rush to multi-task several internet-connected apps (say, check email) will be OK with the slow speeds, and power users will get a more comfortable speed.

    I think I’ve heard this before, related to the airline business…ah yes! It’s called “First”, “Business” and “Coach”!

    1. Echo with Mike Pichol said.

      This just means that GoGo needs to increase their price. Simple supply and demand right? They have a valuable product that some people are willing to pay for – and they need a natural way to limit the number of users. Increase the price – until bandwidth/technology catches up.

  9. 390Kbps? That sounds great, considering your speed, altitude, and location. When I run speed tests of specific websites from my 16Mbps cable connection, most websites serve me data at about…390kbps. That means you should have a near best-case experience for one-site-at-a time browsing. Yes, the latency would be a small issue. Hopefully your browser is pulling content elements down in parallel, not in serial fashion.

    That speed is excellent for browsing, email, IM, blogging, and I’d be happy if that was an option on the flights I take.

    The latency is just beyond what is acceptable for 2-way streaming such as video or voice calls, but I don’t think that is the thirst that GoGo is intended to slake.

    Om, you TOTALLY need to watch this clip of comedian Louis CK on Conan. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LkusicUL2s
    The whole clip is good, but check at time market 2:10

  10. I have to agree with Brett, sd, and Mike. I only have wireless broadband at home and it generally suits my needs, so 390 kbps is more than enough for me. Since I rarely fly more than one roundtrip per month, I would rather have a cheaper service. I don’t mind lower speeds as long as the connection is stable.

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