Jokes and complaints about the speed of airline Wi-Fi are becoming as stale as those about airline food — and maybe as stale as that food itself. But these frustrations are rooted in fact: in-flight Wi-Fi tends to be slow enough that most airlines don’t like to publish it. Alaska Airlines only reports that “speeds are similar to the mobile broadband experience on the ground,” which doesn’t really say anything at all.

Ground Control to Major Slow
The largest company in the in-flight Wi-Fi market is Gogo, Inc., with their equipment in use on 2,300 airliners and 2,000 business jets around the world, making up slightly more than half the market. Gogo’s current technology relies on a ground-based connection to the Internet, known as ATG4, which has significant bandwidth limitations. It has a maximum speed of only 9.8 Mbps, shared among every paying user on the plane. A competing satellite-based technology, called KU, is faster, offering 40 Mbps performance. But, shared among passengers, that might only get each user 1.5-2 Mbps. If it weren’t for the fact that only around 7 percent of passengers opt to pay for in-flight Wi-Fi, the per-passenger performance would actually be much worse.

Gogo DIYs Its Wi-Fi
Gogo examined the available satellite Wi-Fi options and didn’t see one it liked, so the company decided to build its own solution to improve services. The new Gogo network replaces ATG4 with a satellite-based technology called 2KU. It is, as the name implies, essentially two KU systems working together to offer twice the speed. Gogo reports 2Ku is capable of speeds of 70-100 Mbps.

In addition to being faster, it’s cheaper for the airlines to operate, saving $1.8 million per plane per year in bandwidth cost compared to previous generation satellites. That fact is encouraging because it makes airlines more likely to bear the three-day downtime required for installation of 2KU equipment. Once the planes are back in service, they’ll have a product that’s more attractive to consumers, and less expensive to operate, making it likely that more planes will offer in-flight Wi-Fi.

It’s Not All Good News
One drawback is that, even with 2KU, users will still share the available bandwidth with fellow passengers. But let’s not look this gift horse in the mouth: in-flight Wi-Fi will soon be two to 10 times as fast as any of the technologies now in use. With only 5 Mbps required for high-def Netflix streaming, in-flight entertainment options could be a lot more interesting.

Who Will Have It?
Gogo says it will introduce the technology for commercial use this year. Delta is the first customer to announce its intention to install the technology on its fleet, adding it to more than 250 aircraft beginning in 2016. To put that number in perspective, more than 850 Delta aircraft already use existing Gogo technology, so it will still take some time to upgrade the whole fleet to 2KU standard, assuming that’s Delta’s plan.

There’s no guarantee that other airlines now using Gogo will upgrade to the new equipment. However, other current Gogo partners include Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Japan Airlines, United, and Virgin America. If even a few of those domestic carriers make the upgrade, it will represent a dramatic improvement in the broadband available in U.S. airspace.

Photo Credit: Phillip Kalantzis Cope/Flikr