What’s Standing In The Way Of Delta’s Free Wifi

Filed Under: Delta, Travel Technology

Over the past few years we’ve seen huge improvements when it comes to inflight wifi:

  • First we saw airlines add inflight wifi in the first place
  • Then we saw airlines introduce higher speed wifi
  • Now we’ve seen airlines introduce some wifi services for free (like free messaging, limited free data, free wifi for a certain amount of time, etc.)

Delta’s Free Wifi Trial

Delta is by far the most innovative of the “big three” US carriers, and they actually put effort into offering their passengers a quality experience. Along those lines, for quite a while now Delta has been talking about how they have the goal of eventually making inflight wifi free.

This May Delta ran a two week trial where they offered free wifi on 55 flights around their domestic network to see what usage would be like.

Delta said that this trial was the first step towards offering free inflight wifi, as they wanted to get a sense of what consumer behavior would be like with free wifi. They were looking to employee and customer feedback to figure out how best to make free inflight wifi a reality.

What’s Standing In The Way Of Delta’s Free Wifi

What did Delta’s free wifi tests determine? Well, unfortunately it’s not good news.

Skift quotes Delta CEO Ed Bastian as saying that while Gogo has made big improvements to their inflight wifi, unfortunately they can’t get speeds that support the heavy usage from passengers when offering it for free. As Bastian explained:

“We are working hard with Gogo on the technical features. It is really just a question of technical. It is not economics. I am nervous that if we turned it on, it’s going to cause system outages.”

At this point it’s technology and not economics standing in the way of Delta offering free wifi.

So it sure seems like technology needs to be improved before free wifi on Delta is a reality. Delta already offers Gogo 2Ku, which is Gogo’s fastest product. Unfortunately that likely means that we’re a ways off from free wifi being a reality.

What Are Delta’s Options At This Point?

Gogo 2Ku speeds couldn’t support the demand for unlimited free wifi, and it seems Delta is taking an “all or nothing” approach. I say that because I feel like there are some other interim solutions that they don’t seem to be publicly discussing, like:

  • Limiting each passenger to one device (it could be that you have to enter your seat number and name when logging in)
  • Limiting each passenger to a certain amount of free wifi (maybe an hour)

A lot of people would probably point out that JetBlue offers unlimited free wifi to passengers. The thing to note there is that they use Viasat and not Gogo. So it’s not that free wifi isn’t possible, but rather that it seems Gogo’s 2Ku system can’t support it.

Bottom Line

I think all of us (including Delta) were hoping that they’d do this trial, say “yay, everything went great,” and a week later we’d have free wifi on all their flights.

Unfortunately it seems like Delta’s current systems can’t support this. I suppose Delta could take a hybrid approach and introduce free wifi with a catch (by limiting time, devices, etc.), but they’re also generally an all-or-nothing airline.

I’m curious what their next step is here, though unfortunately I don’t think free wifi is imminent…

What do you think Delta will do from here?

  1. This doesn’t really make sense though. Jetblue has free wifi and it works just fine. If Delta has 2Ku, then I would think it should work too.

  2. The easy solution is to throttle speeds so only so much bandwidth between the plane and network is being used, right?

    Let’s say a plane with 200 seats normally has 20 people paying for wifi, and they can get 10 mpbs/user service. Just throttle it to 1 mpbs service/user so it can serve 200 people. I assume that’s what Jetblue does. You would be stopping people from streaming videos, but could still probably basic audio streaming and reading on your device.

    I am sure it is more complicated than this. It could be that the Gogo servers/routers on the planes can only handle say 100 simultaneous connections, but not 200. Or that they can’t throttle users speed, or something else.

  3. Delta also has a fleet of over 900 planes while JetBlue is around 250. Personally, I’d rather pay for WiFi and get decent speeds (Delta’s 2Ku equipped planes are pretty great) – than have free WiFi and get annoyingly slow speeds. You can also buy a 24-hour WiFi pass in advanced via their app for $16 which is reasonable especially if you’re taking a connection.

  4. Simple. Keep it to no-streaming as it was. If it is “free” everyone jumps on YouTube rather than local server content.

  5. It occurs to me that in the interim, they have a great upselling opportunity by making free wifi free to Comfort+ and First customers. Probably helps them generate some incremental paid bookings into both cabins.

  6. A few ideas…

    1. Limit to 1 device at a time
    2. Tiered access/Require a premium for streaming. Throttled and workable /reliable speeds for free, pay for premium access and streaming ability
    3. Expand “Free Messaging” to “Free Messaging/Social” (include all of FB, Twitter, Insta, what have you)
    4. Maybe tiered access, throttled but workable speeds for free.

    Technologically if they can implement this it might be a better way. They already do offer free Gogo for T-Mobile customers.

  7. People, WiFi is not that simple.

    First, blacklist service is harder than it sounds. For example, what about video chatting? What about VPN? What about remote desktop? Plus, it would only break heart of those thinking they could stream.

    Second, “one device per passenger”is definitely easier said than done. At minimum, Delta must share its flight map with gogo, and there are all kinds of security implication. As that to number of departures and the fact that people get upgraded up to last minutes, and the sync becomes extremely fraught.

    And this is before we talk about fraud and cheating on passenger side. Which, I assure you, will happen.

    It’s easier just not to do it for now until they have the bandwidth to ensure good experience. I think the free chat is good enough.

  8. > I am sure it is more complicated than this. It could be that the Gogo servers/routers on the planes can only handle say 100 simultaneous connections, but not 200. Or that they can’t throttle users speed, or something else.

    There’s plenty of stuff that is complicated, but this bit really isn’t. I’m wondering if what they’re concerned about is 20 customers who buy a “fast” connection *plus* 200 people who are all on “slow” trying to watch video.

  9. ,Last December, flew Delta to Seoul and back. Paid my money to Gogo. Worked well going over Seattle to Seoul. Flying back Seoul to Atlanta, didn’t work at all. Reliability is as important as speed. I needed email. That’s all. Gogo sucks!

  10. It could be the external bandwidth bottleneck from the aircraft to the satellite.
    Or it could be the internal Wi-Fi router bottleneck (maximum number of the devices simultaneously connected).
    The former can be controlled easily by limiting individual bandwidths like prohibiting video streaming. The latter is more difficult.

    In fact the current generation Wi-Fi (802.11ac) is inherently poor at addressing massive multiple connections. Next generation Wi-Fi (Wi-Fi 6 / 802.11ax) is much better at it by supporting multi-user OFDMA. (Current Wi-Fi can only transmit data to a single device at a time.)

  11. Viasat and GoGo’s 2Ku is simply different technology. It has nothing to do with the amount of airplanes or seats. Viasat offers in home satellite internet, internet to United, JetBlue and used to Virgin America. Ka Band satellites is just capable of more bandwidth.

    Gogo still uses part of old technology for uploads… So it’s not that simple specially when flying overseas where gogo is non existent. Delta chose the wrong provider. Viasat’s 1 &2 offers coverage in all USA overseas to Alaska, Caribbean and parts of southern America with speeds of 11-20mbps download per seat on free use. May offer more if you pay. JetBlue and Viasat worked very closely to make sure this would fit in the airline’s vision. Delta kinda tried to flip the switch.

  12. Gogo likes to pretend their 2Ku product is competitive with ViaSat, but anyone who understands the space knows this is simply not true. 2Ku is barely competitive with the 1st gen ViaSat equipment, and the 2nd gen is significantly better, especially when the ViaSat 3 constellation comes online in a few years.

    There’s a good chance AA brings back free WiFi on ViaSat planes before Delta has free WiFi on 2Ku planes.

  13. GoGo advertises their 2Ku system as being able to sustain just over 100Mbps- but that’s a single connection and presumably under optimal conditions. If you had 200 people on a plane maxing out the bandwidth, you’d only have 0.5Mb/sec per user- which would be fine for email or perhaps very light web browsing, but not much else.

    However, if streaming is not an option, then it is highly unlikely you’d have more than a few dozen people using any appreciable bandwidth at any given point in time. Netflix can easily use 10-25Mb/sec per user, and even audio streaming can consume 1-5Mb/sec.

    The routers already in Delta planes are quite capable of allocating bandwidth, and presumably could be configured both to block common streaming services as well as limiting users both on burst and sustained bandwidth usage. Such configurations are commonplace in many large public WiFi systems. The access points are already more than capable of handing that number of connections- Gogo installs several access points on each plane, which allow streaming the onboard entertainment to devices, but are more than capable of being used for general internet access. The on-plane infrastructure is actually fairly robust, it is the link between the plane and the ground that is the bottleneck. The number of connections within the plane is almost irrelevant; the volume of data needed to identify and tag packets to each individual device on the plane is an incredibly small percentage of the traffic, no different than any other IP routing.

    Offering a slow but reasonable connection (say 5Mb/sec burst, with a time-averaged limit of 0.5Mb/sec) would probably be workable.

    But Delta is probably leery of offering WiFi only to have hordes of users angry that they can’t stream HD movies over it. Personally I’d be thrilled to be able to check email and read some articles on the web in flight without paying for internet usage; with the in-flight entertainment already offered by Delta I can’t really say I’d be terribly let down to lose access to streaming services.

  14. GOGO is not good WiFi to start. The speeds are slow and don’t support much more than texting and surfing the web. Southwest somehow has speeds that support streaming live TV and an $8.00 fee to surf the web. GOGO can’t support streaming a 2 min video on You Tube. I actually think they blocked this type of service to keep from bogging down the system. Delta would be wise to dissolve the relationship with GOGO. Hopefully this posts, I am using GOGO to post this so I won’t hold my breath.

  15. Since this article was written, Delta has done some varying ways to give free wifi for limited people such as an hour free for t-mobile customers.

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