Aircell developing Ku-band solution to send Gogo offshore
North American passenger connectivity supplier Aircell plans to demonstrate a Ku-band satellite-supported offshore extension of its Gogo service early next year.
In service with American Airlines, Delta and Virgin America and selected for Northwest, United and Air Canada, Gogo is offered in the USA via a very lightweight aircraft fit and a network of around a hundred air-to-ground (ATG) base stations. But Aircell’s airline customers are also interested in offering the service on international flights, according to senior VP for strategy Robin Salem, and the company is developing a Ku-band solution to meet the requirement.
“We are working with customers to offer Gogo on their international flights,” he says. “They want an experience for their passengers that is truly broadband, and we plan to give them something very similar to what Gogo delivers over the USA. We plan to use Ku-band satellites, combining them with our ATG network, and to trial the arrangement with customers early next year.”
Aircell is not yet ready to name its satellite capacity suppliers, Salem says: “We’re currently in business discussions with them.”
In the longer term, Aircell aims to offer Gogo in all the major air transport markets, using either ATG technology or Ku-band. “We are dependent on local regulatory conditions, mainly in relation to the availability of spectrum,” comments Salem. “In Europe there are certain issues and we continue to explore the availability of spectrum there. But there’s no reason why we should not use Ku-band to serve international flights originating or terminating in Europe.”
Salem is echoed by Fran Phillips, senior VP for airline solutions. “Our existing customers are very keen to see Gogo duplicated outside North America,” she says. “There’s a lot of interest from the US-based carriers who fly internationally - that’s where the revenues are at the moment. Some are ready to move very quickly, others are more cautious because the business case isn’t quite as strong with ATG.”
In the meantime, Aircell is set to announce one, possibly two, new customers. “Both are from North America,” says Phillips. “We’re well into installations with one of them, and in serious negotiations with the other.”
Accommodating the two from a capacity point of view should present no problems, according to Salem. “Our network was architected to support the entire North American air transport fleet – including around 4,000 aircraft in the USA alone. We could provide service for half of them at any one time.”
Currently only a few dozen aircraft are equipped for Gogo, though numbers are rising fast, with the Virgin America fleet now almost completely fitted out. But already utilisation is more than meeting expectations. “On occasions we have seen more than 100Mb of data downloaded by passengers on a single coast-to-coast flight,” says Salem.
Apart from the occasional call by a crew member using the two VoIP phones carried on Gogo aircraft, none of that traffic is voice. VoIP traffic from the cabin is blocked, but not for the obvious reasons. “It’s driven neither by capacity concerns on our part nor by the prevailing anti-voice mood here in the USA,” says Salem. “It’s much more to do with the airlines and what they want. Several of them have surveyed their passengers, and they are saying they don’t want it – as long as they can get data to and from the aircraft they don’t need voice.”
As the broadband floodgates open, thoughts are turning now to how soon the providers will find themselves with genuinely self-sustaining long-term businesses. So when does Aircell expect to start making money out of Gogo? “We’ll be cashflow-positive in the very near term, it’s coming up soon,” says Salem. “Complete recovery of our investment will take a little longer.”