Is free WiFi coming to Delta, American and Alaska? Maybe, but don't count on it.

With its next-generation Internet, Gogo could offer its WiFi for free. But will it? Each airline will have to make its own decision. Photo: Gogo.

With its next-generation Internet, Gogo could offer its WiFi for free. But will it? Each airline will have to make its own decision. Photo: Gogo.

Do you dream of free domestic WiFi on American Airlines, Delta Air Lines or Alaska Airlines?

For now, that’s impossible for technological reasons. All three airlines use Gogo’s platform for nearly all U.S. flights, and that system is bandwidth challenged. If airlines gave away the product, the Internet would be unusable. Gogo charges high prices - $33.95 on my recent flight from L.A. to New York - in part to keep people off the system, so it works faster for passengers who buy it. 

But as Gogo is reminding everyone, it has a new satellite-based system coming next year that will change this calculus on some flights. Delta will outfit a big chunk of its fleet with this 2KU system, while United, a small Gogo customer, is conducting a test on several airplanes. The new system will be faster and more reliable than Gogo’s current one, which relies on ground-based cell towers. It won't completely replace the today's technology - many planes will stick with the cell tower-based systems - but Internet will improve on some aircraft. 

Since there will no longer be bandwidth limitations, this means Delta, American and Alaska could finally offer free WiFi at least on some flights. But will they?

"It's ultimately the airline's decision," Gogo CEO Michael Small told me last week. "We can do it both ways. The question is, 'Do they want to get a check [from Gogo] or write a check [to Gogo]?' 

Small knows his customers well, and he doesn't seem to expect them to follow JetBlue, which is giving its speedy Internet away for free. JetBlue makes money by selling sponsorships.

This means JetBlue may have a competitive advantage for awhile. But Small noted that is not unusual. All airlines have different fee structures.

"We will see what happens," Small said. "But remember, some bags fly free and some don't."

I asked Small if he was surprised by all the recent criticism his company has received.  People want Internet as fast as on the ground, and they want it free. Right now, Gogo can't provide either option, and travelers sometimes get upset  Small knows the phenomenon. "There is a God-given right to Internet out there," he said. 

But Small has worked in telecommunications for a long time, and he said the same thing happened with early versions of cable television and cell phones. The service was never as good as customers wanted. 

"What's different in our case is that people compare us to the ground," he said. "They say, why isn't it as good in the air?'"

Eventually, it probably will match the ground experience. But for now, passengers are just going to have to be patient. And if they want to be connected, they're going to have to pay for iffy service.

Have you used Gogo recently? How was it?


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