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July 4, 2019

5G is coming to US aviation by 2021, but possibly only for the elite

By GlobalData Technology

Gogo, which currently provides in-flight WiFi for the aviation sector, announced plans to build a 5G network to support in-flight services. However, despite the headlines, it’s now clear that most air travellers will not get to enjoy the benefits anytime soon.

Gogo announced in May that it will build out an air-to-ground 5G network supported by 250 towers in the US. Gogo expects the network to be available for business and commercial aviation in 2021, which aligns well with mobile operator deployment plans. All the major US network operators, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile USA, and Sprint (alone or as part of T-Mobile USA if that proposed merger is consummated) are likely to be well on their way with 5G deployments by then.

The news comes at a strange time for Gogo, as it will only apply to air-to-ground (ATG) systems at a time when airlines are increasingly favouring satellite or hybrid satellite-and-ground-based services. Notably, in the US, American Airlines is in the midst of a massive de-installation of Gogo ATG WiFi systems from 550 of its planes in favour of satellite-based service from Gogo’s competitor, Viasat. In Europe, the European Aviation Network combines high-capacity satellite coverage with 4G LTE ground coverage across 30 European countries, promising 50 Gbps capacity.

While it is not the only satellite option, Viasat has made great strides recently, more than doubling the number of aircraft it serves in the past year to 1,300, with another 400 in the pipeline. Gogo has itself embraced satellite service, particularly as it pursues opportunities outside the US. The company claims that its 2Ku satellite system can offer 15 Mbps per user, with a potential coverage of 98% of all global flight routes and 98% system availability. And Gogo has made steady progress, with 600 planes outfitted with the 2Ku system, another 1,400 in the pipeline, and roughly 15 airline customers globally.

Gogo continues to see a growing market for ATG systems and cites several operational benefits to ATG over satellite, including lower operating costs and lower latency. Those advantages should arguably improve as Gogo deploys 5G.

Unfortunately, the number of customers that will benefit from 5G will remain small and, in many cases, “elite.” Gogo continues to see strong ATG traction in the private jet segment and those jets will be the first to benefit from Gogo’s new 5G network.

Which means not only will private jet passengers be able to avoid the long security lines, they’ll be among the first to get ‘5G in the air’ too.