Gadling visits Aircell – the company behind Gogo Inflight Internet

There is no denying it – Gadling loves Gogo Inflight. So much in fact, that we begged to take a look behind the scenes at what makes this inflight Internet service run, and grill their executives on when we can finally have Internet on every single flight we take. It was a fascinating day, spent with people that really love what they are doing.
The geeky side of Aircell

The Aircell network consists of 92 ground stations. Think of them as the same kind of cell tower you have in your back yard, but looking up at the skies. The technology is very similar to what you use on Sprint and Verizon (EVDO Rev.A). Thankfully for Aircell, looking up at the skies requires a hell of a lot less towers than looking towards the horizon (like cellphone companies need to do). For starters, there are no trees and buildings blocking your view, and when you look up, there is no curvature of the earth to deal with.

Some other background information for the geeks – their network uses cellular equipment from Chinese manufacturer ZTE (their first major network sale in the US. The rest of it runs pretty much the same way any major network operates – a lot of Cisco and IBM equipment, and a backbone powered by AT&T. At the moment, each airplane gets 3.1mbit of bandwidth.

Their network operations center was surprisingly boring – a handful of people keep a close eye on the ground based network, and one guy watches the planes. The reason for this is actually great for Aircell – their equipment has proven to be extremely reliable, and they really can keep the entire network running with just a couple of guys.

In their network operations center, the wall has the screens you’d expect from any NOC – a couple of network status screens and a large plasma TV with 100′s of planes. The planes are all color coded to show their status. Thankfully all but one or two planes were green which may have explained the serenity in their room.

Aircell equipment installations

At the moment, Aircell has gear installed on just under 700 aircraft (this does not include installations on private planes). When you realize that just 12 months ago it was only on 23 planes, you’ll understand what an amazing accomplishment this has been.

The really amazing number is that the Aircell team can install the entire system on a plane in just 8 hours. Airlines hate taking a plane out of operation, and obviously, Aircell can’t ask the airline to hand them a plane for a couple of days. So at the moment, the Aircell team arrives at the airport, gets access to a plane at 10pm, and by sunrise, the plane has been equipped with everything it needs to offer Internet access in the skies.

The company

During the day, Aircell opened up every office in the building for me – nothing was off limits. I spent some time chatting with their CEO, their VP of airline operations and even spent some time in their mock airplane cabin complete with coach and first class seating. This cabin-in-an-office is where Aircell did some real hands-on testing of how people work on their computer, and probably realized like the rest of us that using a large laptop in a coach seat is a major hassle.

The future

As Aircell adds more aircraft to its network, and more users learn the joy of inflight Internet, you obviously run the risk of towers becoming too crowded, and the speed grinding to a halt. Thankfully the company is fully prepared to deal with that. When they showed me their current base station map, they showed how easy it is to just add new towers. So easy in fact, that they can even add towers for one specific high-traffic route. So, if too many people start using it between LA and San Francisco, keeping speeds acceptable involves nothing more than a new tower looking up to the skies on that route.

In addition to this, Aircell already has a future plan laid out for a migration to 4G technology. They have picked LTE as their next generation system, and as the market evolves, they’ll be able to beam as much as 100mbit to a single aircraft.

Of course, when I asked which airlines we can expect to join the ranks of the current Aircell customers, the room got rather quiet. But it is safe to say that pretty soon, almost every major US carrier will have committed to offering Internet in the air. There is only one competitor for domestic US inflight Internet access, and they have yet to see a major rollout to any aircraft.

One big topic at the Aircell HQ is video – video is big on the ground, and if it is up to them, it’ll be big in the skies as well. There were very few details about their plans, but if you picture turning your laptop into an inflight entertainment system with content coming from equipment on the plane, you’ll get an idea of how Aircell envisions the future of flying.

Wrap-up

I’d like to thank Aircell and everyone that took the time to speak to me. It was fun to see so many people speak so passionately about what they are doing. Despite some grumblings from the media wondering how they’ll ever make money, the company has a pretty solid outlook on the future. Usage is up month after month, they just reached the one million user mark, and are going to hit two million within the next month.

Obviously most passengers would prefer the service to be free, but when you look at the amount of money that has been pumped into building this network, it is pretty amazing they can offer it at this current price point.