"You're Now Free To Complain About the Wi-Fi"
Bloomberg Businessweek|August 31 - September 06 2015
The infuriating technology and perverse economics of Gogo's in-flight Internet.
Sam Grobart

In the fall of 2008, Louis C.K. was a guest on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and delivered a soon-to-be-viral rant called “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” It was about how we live in a time of mind- blowing technological achievement, and all we do is complain about it. His main source of amazement was—again, this was seven years ago—airplane Wi-Fi. He recounted his experience with it, how incredible it was to watch YouTube while soaring above the clouds, and how the network broke down minutes after passengers started using it. “The guy next to me says, ‘This is bulls---,” Louis tells O’Brien. “Like, how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago!”

It’s a clip Michael Small knows well. “Oh sure,” he says. “That’s huge around here.” Small is the chief executive officer of Gogo, the largest in-flight Internet provider in the U.S. You might think an old comedy bit about in-flight Wi-Fi would be charmingly quaint; that most of the kinks would have been worked out by now and service would be fast and reliable. But you don’t think that. If you’ve flown for work on a major U.S. airline over the past five years, you’ve probably used Gogo, and “fast and reliable” are probably not how you’d describe it. More like “hell-sent and extortionate.”

Since pioneering the in-flight Internet business, Gogo has dominated, commanding about 80 percent of the market. And as often happens with near monopolies, Gogo has become a name people love to hate. “So, Gogo is officially a joke at this point, right?” is the title of a well- commented-on thread on the road warrior site Flyer Talk. “They’ve got a monopoly, and they just don’t care,” says pharmaceutical executive and frequent flyer Keith Lockwood. “Once you have it, it’s hard not to have it.”

Gogo hasn’t done itself any favors. Steadily increasing fees and deteriorating data speeds have further annoyed already cranky flyers. “The service is so unreliable at this point that I don’t get a good enough ROI to spend $60 a month to maybe be able to download my e-mails,”says health-care executive and former Gogo user Manuel Hernandez.

For years, customer perceptions that Gogo is basically Comcast at 35,000 feet didn’t hurt the company’s bottom line. Users were literally a captive audience, and if they didn’t like the service, too bad, read a book. But for the first time since that Louis C.K. rant, Gogo has some serious competition. At least two companies—ViaSat and Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE)— are encroaching on its airspace, winning business by offering faster, cheaper connections that use satellites instead of cell towers. Gogo is launching its own satellite system that should come online by the end of the year. “We’re going to create a great new future in aviation,” Small says. “And as long as we keep making progress, the customers are going to hang with us.”

In the late 1990s, Boeing began building a satellite network called Connexion that would provide Internet access on planes. The technology worked; people who tried it loved it; but Wi-Fi, even home Wi-Fi, was new and there wasn’t enough demand. Flights were still mostly downtime for business travelers—a few precious hours of unreachability. So the service muddled along, there for the taking but mostly unwanted, like a seat-pocket copy of SkyMall. Then came the airline industry collapse following Sept. 11. Boeing shut Connexion down in 2006.

Gogo, which started that same year, had much better timing. It’s spent almost $1 billion developing onboard equipment and a network of transmission towers across North America. Back then, travelers in business class who needed to work used laptops or occasionally BlackBerrys or Palm Treos. A year later the iPhone arrived, and data-hungry smartphones soon became more or less a human appendage.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEKView All

It's the Economy, Stupide

France’s president has an ace up his sleeve as he seeks a second term

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 17, 2022

Georgia On Our Minds, Again

The Southern state will be the stage for more high-stakes political drama

2 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 17, 2022

Fur Tries to SHED Its Image, Again

The industry is betting a new certification program will win back consumers worried over animal welfare

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 17, 2022

The New Web Vs. the Old Web

Meet Web3, which could replace the Big Tech powers, or be co-opted by them

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 17, 2022

Cheap, Focused, Mobile—and Not a Bank

How Silicon Valley is winning the money of young consumers

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 17, 2022

Washington vs.Carbon

The feds are starting to allocate billions of dollars to pull CO2 from the air. They’ve got a lot of work to do

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 17, 2022

Velvet Glove Back country

A new generation discovers a love of the great outdoors—provided posh creature comforts come with it

3 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 17, 2022

There's Still No Amazon For Buying Houses

Real estate is a big, complex transaction, so companies are focused on making specific parts easier

3 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 17, 2022

Gary Gensler Eyes Rules for Robots

The SEC chair who shook up crypto is asking how algorithms might influence investors

3 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 17, 2022

The Drugs Are Working

The first step toward fulfilling a New Year’s resolution just might be a class of prescription weight loss pills and shots. The next steps: Getting patients and doctors to trust them and insurers to cover them

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 10, 2022
RELATED STORIES

A Maximum Memorial

How Boeing’s missteps continued well past the Ethiopian Airlines flight that killed all 157 on board

8 mins read
Newsweek
December 03, 2021

Mistakes Were Made: 9/11 At 20

We should also acknowledge that a pervasive question after 9/11—“Why do they hate us?”—was the wrong question.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
August 30 - September 12, 2021

The Legacy of Flight 93

An Army officer remembers his cousin Rich Guadagno and the other 39 heroes who died in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on September 11

5 mins read
Guideposts
August/September 2021

RANDOM APPLE MEMORY - Apple goes portable with AirPort Express

Charlotte Henry recalls how Apple entered, then exited, the highly competitive world of internet routers

1 min read
Mac Life
August 2021

10 Ways to Boost Your Wi-Fi Signal

Browsing slowed to a crawl, the inability to stream, dropped Wi-Fi signals, wireless dead zones—each of these problems is maddening in a world where getting online has become, for some, as necessary as breathing (well, maybe not that critical—but still important). When the only way you can get decent reception is by standing next to your wireless router, our tips can help.

10+ mins read
PC Magazine
March 2021

UNITED: SMALL ELECTRIC AIR TAXIS WILL ZIP PEOPLE TO AIRPORTS

United Airlines said it will buy up to 200 small electric air taxis to help customers in urban areas get to the airport.

1 min read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #486

What Is C-Band, and What Does It Mean for the Future of 5G?

What's New Now / 5G

6 mins read
PC Magazine
February 2021

WE FLY: FLIGHT DESIGN F2

AN ALL-AROUND ALL- COMPOSITE TREAT

10+ mins read
Flying
January - February 2021

Sit Back and Relax in the Sky

Airlines take customer comfort and experience to the next level in premium cabins.

5 mins read
Global Traveler
Class Act 2020

Fast Forward

Airports around the world take a leap into the future.

7 mins read
Global Traveler
Class Act 2020