Gogo to launch global Ground-to-Orbit connectivity


Gogo plans to launch a global version of its Ground-to-Orbit (GTO) superfast inflight connectivity solution, Runway Girl Network can exclusively reveal.

“We will be announcing a global version of what is essentially the GTO technologies,” says Gogo president and CEO Michael Small.

He declined to provide explicit details about what the global offering will entail, but the industry should expect to learn much more about it at the forthcoming Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.

GTO, in its current state, is a hybrid air-to-ground (ATG)/Ku-band satellite solution that is targeted at the North American market. Combining a ThinKom-manufactured receive-only Ku antenna for fast download speeds with Gogo’s latest generation ATG-4 system for lower latency uploads, GTO attracted its first customer in Virgin America last year.

Presently undergoing ground tests, GTO is achieving download speeds of 70 Mbps. Gogo expects to fit the system to a Virgin America aircraft very late this summer pending certification. Once Ku high throughput satellites (HTS) are available, Gogo fully anticipates GTO to achieve speeds of 100 Mbps, says Small. “We love GTO. The increased surface area of the receive-only antenna fundamentally makes it at least twice as efficient as other antennas on the market.”

In order to offer GTO globally, Gogo will need to replace the ATG-4 slice of the system with a satellite antenna. It’s not clear if Gogo will augment the receive-only GTO Ku antenna with a regular Ku antenna. Gogo – a service distribution partner to Inmarsat for the global Ka-band Global Xpress (GX) service – could also combine the receive-only antenna with a Ka antenna for GX. Certainly, down the road, if Kymeta continues to hit the benchmarks for developing a super skinny metamaterials surface antenna for GX, there might be opportunities to offer this sort of unique hybrid.

News that Gogo is going to take GTO global comes at a time when satellite operator ViaSat could be categorized as ramping up the rhetoric about its regional Ka-band connectivity service, Exede, which has received hugely positive press – including from Runway Girl Network – for its performance on JetBlue and United aircraft.

The Exede service may also be tapped by United for installation on more aircraft than originally earmarked by the airline. But LiveTV is the lead on the United contract so any agreement will involve LiveTV, which is being acquired by IFE heavyweight Thales in a move that will catapult Thales into the connectivity arena in a more substantial way.

Gogo’s Small is generally more reserved than ViaSat CEO Mark Dankberg, but I asked Small to address some of the commentary that came out of a Cramer interview yesterday with Dankberg.

Says Small, “I think ViaSat has a vision. They want to pursue it and they’re pursuing it very aggressively. Dankberg is clearly defining his company as being better than Gogo. He has been doing it for a while, and I think he’s finally forced me not to ignore it, largely due to our customers that hear these claims via a well established CEO.”

Small says Gogo studied ViaSat’s offering but “declined to pursue ViaSat for our airline customers because the ViaSat-1 satellite does not cover the entire United States”. ViaSat’s WildBlue satellite augments ViaSat-1 coverage, and “performs at a good level, but not like ViaSat-1 and both are shared with terrestrial customers and we were not sure how much capacity will be allocated to aeronautical at any point in time”.

Additionally, he says, “We knew there would be a hand-off between satellites and neither ViaSat-1 nor WildBlue have a back-up satellite, and in the event of a catastrophic failure, there would be nothing you could do. What would I tell Delta Air Lines? ‘Sorry, WildBlue went down and I can’t fix it until ViaSat-2 is launched’?”

Small rejects comparisons between ViaSat-1-powered connectivity and ATG, saying, “What Dankberg should be comparing to – because this will be the competition in the marketplace – is GTO. From a timeline perspective, GTO is admittedly a little behind Dankberg’s ‘half country’ coverage [with ViaSat-1] but ahead of his ‘full country’ coverage. We use existing Ku satellites. We have consistent coverage across the entire geographic areas today.”

ViaSat has long insisted that its service is capable of delivering 12 Mpbs or more to each individual connected passenger, though in an interview with the APEX editor’s blog last year, it said onboard kit could support speeds in the 70-80 mbps range per aircraft. The company has attracted strong interest not only from the investment community but aircraft interiors giant Zodiac Aerospace, which previously told Runway Girl Network that it is offering complete cabin packages to airlines, inclusive of connectivity from ViaSat.

Zodiac and its Northwest Aerospace Technologies (NAT) unit “are top of the list” of companies that ViaSat would tap for assistance in obtaining supplemental type certification (STC) for various aircraft types, including the 737 to support its new El Al contract, ViaSat director Don Buchman recently told us.

System redundancy and assurances that #PaxEx partners are in the industry for the long-haul are generally important considerations for airlines when selecting inflight entertainment and connectivity solutions. ViaSat recently made clear that it is both partner to and competitor against LiveTV, and that it intends to seek STCs for various aircraft types.

Gogo’s Small suggests that, at the most fundamental level, Gogo “is a communications service provider for the global aviation industry”. “Terms like ‘carrier grade’ might sneak in here. This is mission critical. The system has to work every day. Initially, connectivity was viewed as a passenger amenity, but the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 issue will take it all to the other end and it will become a safety issue,” he says.

“And then there are all the operational issues of getting the data and reports, and an airline will demand exceptional levels of reliability and service for their connectivity over time. We’re seeing tremendous change already with our airline partners. First it was something they bragged about, but now if anyone blanks out, they want to know why and make sure it won’t happen again. You need to be reliable for global aviation, and that is what we intend to do. It’s still early days but being a good service provider is going to be a lot of value to airlines.”

It’s clear that the inflight connectivity market has grown incredibly competitive. Now that Thales is picking up LiveTV for $400 million, and moving to offer both regional Ka and GX-supported integrated IFEC offerings, the market is only going to get hotter still.