Review: Aircell's Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi

I know Mossberg ‘reviewed’ the service a while back, but he was on the plane by himself with a cornucopia of devices. That’s not a real world situation. I was skeptical of the whole thing like most of you were, but after yesterday I’m completely sold. It’s not earth shattering or anything. I mean, it’s only Wi-Fi on a plane, but it’s finally here and better than expected.

Let’s start with the good. Getting yourself set up is super easy, but there is one caveat. Managing your Gogo account from a mobile device is limited and you’ll need a laptop to get everything up and running. It’s also not really worth it to pay $13 if you’re only going to be using your BlackBerry, iPhone or Windows Mobile device, but I digress. Setup is simple, but if you do run into some problems there is a 24-hour help desk that’s available to you via IM regardless of whether or not you’re connected. I actually used it yesterday and they got me squared away in a matter of minutes. Also, for the next month or two there will be Gogo reps from Aircell wearing mint green polos on board to help customers out. After that there will be telephone CSRs at your beck and call.

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How are the speeds? Well, I was averaging download speeds of 1,491 kbps while IMing and browsing the Web with occasional updates to my post. I didn’t really notice any sort of slow down until I started streaming multiple video streams. Of course, this all depends on how many other passengers are using the service. Aircell manages the bandwidth based on what you’re doing. If you’re being a bandwidth hog by downloading a huge file or watching multiple video streams then you get put at the back of the line. Your service doesn’t get cut off, but you will notice a slow down. But if you’re on a red eye and no one is using it then you’re taking full advantage without any backlash. My outbound flight from JFK had a few more users than my flight back from LAX, but everything was pretty smooth.

We’ve all been wondering about VoIP and whether or not it will work. I couldn’t get any Skype calls to work, but I did manage to make a phone call over UMA on my T-Mobile BlackBerry Curve to my brother in NYC. The call lasted a minute and five seconds before I ended it to call my brother back and leave a voicemail on his machine, so that I’d have a wav file to post on the site. Aircell caught on and jammed it the next time around. All I could hear were digital noises reminiscent of a fax machine. So VoIP calls do and don’t work. It’s more or less luck of the draw until Aircell is able to put a clamp on everything and anything VoIP related. If a clever hacker were able to make VoIP calls on a consistent basis an airline representative will come over and scold you. Also, I was able to send and receive SMS/MMS over UMA on my BlackBerry.

Having Wi-Fi on my BlackBerry, iPhone 3G and Windows Mobile device worked just as it normally does. Nothing special here, so I won’t go into it.

Aircell does have a command center that’s monitoring activity, so they’ll know if you’re hacking the system to make VoIP calls, downloading ginormous files, etc., but they’re not spying on you by any means. Whatever is within their legal rights is all. Exactly what sort of repercussions is unknown for those making VoIP calls. Just don’t do it, I say. What’s the point? (Totally rhetorical – BTW)
I was a tad too sheepish to try, but there is no filtering since you’re paying for the service but you can get your porn fix if you’re going through withdrawals. It’s just a matter of decency and respect for your surrounding neighbors.

If there was ever a case where the flight crew deemed it necessary to cut off all Gogo services they can do that instantaneously. Aircell also provides the airline staff with air to ground communications, Internet, phone, avionics and other services that are separate from the Gogo service.
Switching service between devices is relatively easy. You simply need to log off before logging in from another device. Just be sure to do it before the device you’re on dies.

Well, I think that just about covers all the good stuff. Let’s rap about the negatives, but there aren’t very many.

First, I wasn’t aware that AA only had cigarette adapters. Had I known that I probably would have ran to the Apple store to find one. But that’s not a knock against Aircell. However, it did deter from the entire experience. So remember to bring your adapaters!

UMA was spotty on my BlackBerry and it’s something that Aircell is aware of, so they’ll hopefully have it resolved in the near future. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t able to send/receive e-mails BB messages or surf the Web. I just wasn’t able to send and receive SMS/MMS when UMA wasn’t active.
Overall, I give Aircell’s Gogo service two thumbs up. It worked as advertised and while the entire flight wasn’t using the service, I think enough folks were using it to see how my bandwidth was affected and what certain activities did to my own bandwidth. As I said before, I noticed very little drops in speed for simple Web browsing and chatting.

Is it worth the $13? That’s your call, but it sure comes in handy on transcontinental flights that serve up horrible in-flight entertainment and it makes the time fly. Unless, of course, you’re flying Virgin America and have access to RED. Once Gogo rolls out on VA they’ll be undoubtedly the best airline for entertainment and service. But kudos to American Airlines for having the cojones to roll this service out first.