Capacity boost coming to make Southwest wifi experience better

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What does it take to keep travelers happily connected? A lot more bandwidth, and Global Eagle Entertainment is upping capacity significantly with a focus on Southwest Airlines and its 500+ aircraft flying over North America.

GEE chief technology officer Aditya Chatterjee caught some observers off guard earlier in the month when, during the FTE Global conference in Las Vegas, he indicated plans to double capacity by the end of the year.

Details were sparse at the time but during the recent APEX Expo in Portland, Oregon, Chatterjee spoke at length with RGN and offered up more insight on the plans.

The main effort in accomplishing that bandwidth growth involves leveraging GEE’s new partnership with satellite operator SES, and adjusting satellites to ensure the new arrangement will provide sufficient capacity where it is needed most.

Chatterjee explained, “We’re adding bandwidth over [the] East Coast which we are actually comfortable with. It’s there. The West Coast is taking a little longer but we have the satellite in space. We have started testing it, and very soon you would see improvements. Then you know, the point is, you never stop, right? You improve, you validate, and then again hopefully, it won’t be immediate because it is substantial, next year we will again go and validate and add more bandwidth. That’s what we do. This year we took a big step rather than normal steps, because we have been adding bandwidth in the Southwest.”

He added later, “We moved a satellite on the East. We have now moved a satellite on the West. We got the certifications on the East, and you do have to talk to FCC when you do this. Right now the infrastructure is in place. When the FCC says, ‘Go’, I go.”

Chatterjee was also quick to point out that this sort of growth – as much as double the capacity depending on exactly where aircraft are in the coverage map – is not a knee-jerk reaction nor is it the only growth the network has ever had. But the SES partnership was critical to getting the extra capacity operational. Passengers on East Coast flights may already be witnessing the benefits of the boost.  APEX’s new CEO, Joe Leader, today suggested that, having just flown Southwest, he was able to get work done (something the author and RGN editor Mary Kirby haven’t been able to do on recent Southwest flights).

There are also upgrades happening on board the aircraft, though these are not tied to the bandwidth increases, at least not today, Chatterjee stressed multiple times. Servers, wireless access points and modems are all set to see upgrades over time and GEE is working now to get those changes certified and integrated into the deployment path with Southwest. New modems will be installed over time to ensure that the fleet can handle the HTS satellites scheduled to launch in the next couple years; the older generation of modem caps out around 20Mbit, according to Chatterjee. The companies are also investigating in the addition of a third WAP on board to handle the increased demand.

These upgrades are, to GEE, just part of the normal course of technology. They take time and sometimes customers are uncomfortable with just how long those lead times are.

“It is the course of business upgrades to the hardware. Almost similar to the course of business upgrade to the bandwidth which are totally independent of each other. We are working with Hughes, we are working with Kontron, we are working with Telefonix,” said Chaterjee.

The Global Eagle CTO also offered insights into how he sees the broader connectivity landscape evolving. “Ku was an established technology. Very reliable. Best thing you could [use]. Then came Ka high throughput. Why did Ka high throughput come up? Because Ka guys figured out wide beam won’t work [and] Ku dominates. Let’s find a different technology. Then came Ku guys that said, ‘Jeez. We have this Ku. All this spectrum. All these satellites. They’re slowing getting older. We will [want] the space. We have designed a new satellite. Let’s take the best of both worlds.’ That’s why the Ku high throughput is going to come. At that point it will be all high throughput whether Ka, Ku, X, who cares? That time is very soon. That time starts, I think, sometime next year.”

“I go into it in 2017, and then you’ve got these inherent redundancies, wide beam. You have choices, right? You’ve got choices of SES, other big satellite providers building Ku high throughput, and all of them, say, are building it for mobility. Now, you take Ka. Ka high throughput came because first off there was no place [slots] in Ku world. You got to do something new, and it was built for the consumer. [And there are] not enough consumers.”

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