Tech Break: Gogo inflight WiFi

I’m writing this article from a relatively exotic location (Orlando, Florida) with a relatively exotic computer (Google’s Cr-48). I am here for work-related reasons (partial internship), and as a result, had someone pick my flight for me. The flight to here, powered by US Airways, has in-flight WiFi, so I will review that in this article.

My experience with inflight WiFi started around 7:30 AM, Denver Time, on US Airways flight 1710. The flight number is important for two reasons. First, the flight was completed by an Airbus A321, the only plane on which US Airways currently has Gogo inflight WiFi service, compared with Delta’s WiFi presence on any flight that does not use a regional jet. Second, I stayed on the same plane, with the same flight number, all the way to my destination, despite an hour stopover in Charlotte, US Air’s big eastern hub. This fact will become important later.

The night before my flight, I nabbed a day pass from Gogo in order to cover inflight WiFi for both flight segments. The pass was $11.96, including tax, versus $12.95 plus tax for buying in the air, or so Gogo said. In reality, you can access Gogo’s website, as well as the website of the airline you are flying on, without even having to log in. I did not try this, but I am pretty sure that I could just purchase the pass that way and save a couple bucks versus paying from Gogo’s “captive portal” page that shows up if you try to go to, say, Google if you are not logged into their service.

This purchase brings me back to the plane. When I opened my computer (above 10,000 feet) and connected to Gogo’s unprotected WiFi signal, I was shocked to find that day passes were nowhere to be found on the in-flight purchase screen. This is important because the day pass I received was just a promotional code used to bring my purchase of an in-air day pass to zero dollars. The single-flight pass, on the other hand, was $12.95, so I “bought” that instead, while waiting for a helpful Gogo agent to talk me through what was going on in an accompanying chat window.

As it turns out, Alaska Airlines, Airtran (soon to be absorbed by Southwest), Delta, and Virgin America are the only airlines that honor Gogo day passes. This fact was not apparent on Aircell’s website, so the Gogo chat rep gave me a code for a free flight, presumably to cover the second segment (CLT-MCO for airport code lovers) of my flight. Fast-forward to 10,000 feet above South Carolina and I find out that, instead of forcing me to buy a $4.95 short-flight WiFi pass, Gogo was perfectly fine with continuing to give me Internet access over my previous flight pass, which I am absolutely okay with. My guess is that the system bills per flight, and since my flight number was the same all the way to Orlando, my ‘net access lasted until then. On the other hand, if I had connected to a different A321-powered flight, I would have had to use the coupon code that the Gogo rep so graciously gave me.

Two more notes before I cover the performance of the actual system. First, Ford is promoting their Explorer SUV by giving away free access to Facebook via Gogo for the rest of February, a feature that I tested and found to work perfectly on my flight to Charlotte. Second, Gogo works on a sign-in/sign-out basis, with up to one device being able to log in at a time on a given WiFi pass. This method of authentication allowed me to use the full Internet on both my MacBook and my Cr-48 during both flights, swapping my account between the two as the flight progressed. I came into the plane thinking that the pass would be tied to a single device’s MAC address, limiting me to the use of one device for the duration of the flight, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that this limitation was, in fact, nonexistent.

Last but not least, Gogo performed decently. I would not go so far as to say that Gogo’s network, currently powered by an air-to-ground EvDO link (a la Verizon, Sprint, and CricKet) and backhauled by AT&T was incredibly fast, but it worked fine for light web surfing, e-mail, and Google Docs. I measured download speeds of 600-1000 kbps and uploads of around 250 kbps, about the same as I’ve seen with my CricKet aircard. Latency was variable, but I saw pings to terrestrial sites hitting in the low-to-mid 100ms range, something that the satellite based solution Southwest is trialing will not be able to do. You cannot do VoIP over Gogo (it is not allowed), and gaming while flying is probably a bad idea as well, however I have seen much, much worse connections to the Internet in my day.

In short, whether Gogo inflight WiFi is worth it depends on how you’re going to use the service and which airline you are flying on. If you are flying nonstop or are aboard an airline that honors the day pass program, the service is a decent value, provided you are doing something profitable with the connection; Netflix does not count because it will not work, and Facebook does not count because you can get that for free right now. If you are making a connection on an airline that does not do day passes, look at what planes you are flying on, and how long you are spending on each one. $12 for four hours worth of making-a-flight-go-quickly sounds like a decent deal to me. $13 plus tax for a little over two hours of WiFi, not so much. But that is your decision, the service itself is solid.
Curious about airport WiFi? I cannot say that I have been everywhere, but I will post an online-only article some time next week about my experiences in that arena. Until then, comment on this article with your own in-flight technology experiences; I am a bit of an airline geek as well, so I like that sort of thing.

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