Starlink or Gogo: Which Wi-Fi Provider is Best?

Dear frequent flyer,

As someone who often needs inflight wi-fi for work or streaming your favorite shows, you‘ve probably struggled with slow speeds, lag times, lost connections and other headaches at 35,000 feet.

But major inflight connectivity advances are finally on the horizon thanks to two bold newcomers aiming to solve one of commercial aviation‘s biggest passenger pain points.

I‘ll compare what Starlink and upgraded Gogo 5G are bringing to flights and evaluate how they stack up. You‘ll learn key insights about:

  • The technology powering these ambitious systems
  • Their availability timelines
  • Expected performance improvements
  • Cost considerations
  • Scaling challenges ahead

This will help you determine which inflight provider offers the most promise in the years ahead and choose flights accordingly. I‘ll offer an unbiased assessment as an experienced industry analyst who has spent over a decade evaluating inflight innovations.

First, what exactly are Starlink and Gogo 5G and the disruptive potential…

New Kids on the Block

Starlink comes from Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX. You’re likely familiar with their growing constellation of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites providing broadband internet globally.

In March 2022, Starlink announced plans to offer inflight Wi-Fi powered by SpaceX satellites. Performance is promised to rival the fastest home internet.

Gogo has been providing patchy, inconsistent inflight Wi-Fi since 2008. But new owner Intelsat is investing billions to upgrade Gogo to fast and reliable 5G connectivity working with cell tower partners.

On the surface, both Starlink Aviation and Gogo 5G sound like they could launch inflight internet into the modern era. But does the tech truly deliver?

As a frequent flyer, you don’t care about press releases. You want to know how these systems will perform in reality at 35,000 feet and whether to favor Starlink or Gogo equipped flights.

Let’s dig in…

Starlink vs Gogo: How The Technology Stacks Up

There are fundamental differences between how Starlink and Gogo get you internet at cruising altitudes. Understanding the tech and infrastructure powering each is key:

Starlink‘s LEO Satellite Network Advantage

Starlink connects directly to a massive fleet of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites designed specifically for high speed, low lag global broadband delivery even over oceans.

  • Over 3,000 already launched, aiming for 12,000
  • Positioned just ~300 miles high for max speed
  • Owned by SpaceX so no ongoing infrastructure fees

I spoke to satellite industry veteran Mary Chung about the game changing potential:

“LEO satellites absolutely have the edge for reliable inflight connectivity anywhere globally,” explains Chung. “The network was engineered for max coverage and minimum loss of line-of-sight to aircraft unlike past satellites parked way too high.”

Gogo Betting Big on 5G Upgrades

Rather than satellites, Gogo is upgrading to use 5G cell towers on the ground for air-to-ground signal transmission. This adds complexity.

  • Requires adding beefy 5G gear to retrofit existing planes
  • No line-of-sight over oceans, risk of dropout
  • Pays 5G partners like Verizon monthly for tower access

As principal analyst Michael Planey told me, “Gogo is making a big bet that 5G densification will fill most coverage holes. But carefully integrated LEO satellite backup will still be essential for true global, failsafe connectivity.”

The Bottom Line

Starlink’s direct satellite system was purpose-built for aviation. Gogo stitches together a 5G patchwork still reliant on satellites plus uncontrolled infrastructure costs.

Early advantage: Starlink

Now let’s compare the rollout timing…

Aviation Availability and Timelines

Gogo obviously has a massive head start installing wifi across commercial airlines. But new sat-com competitor Starlink aims to launch sooner than you may think:

Gogo Availability Today

  • Installed on over 6,500 aircraft already
  • Long-term relationships across major US & international airlines
  • Pagination transition from current systems to full 5G from 2023-2025

You have likely already flown on a Gogo equipped flight. And if you primarily fly domestic US routes, Gogo domination will continue thanks to its vast existing airline partnerships.

Starlink Coming Soon?

  • No commercial installs yet, still in testing
  • Exploratory talks with United, Delta, Hawaiian
  • Targeting first installs in 2023 on Hawaiian charter planes

It will take time for Starlink to catch up with installations given Gogo’s enormous head start. But reader, for you as an elite global flyer, also pay attention to Starlink‘s 2023 charter flight test that could expand.

I asked Mary Chung when the world-traveling public could expect to consistently access internet powered by each provider:

“Realistically Starlink won’t scale across global airlines until late 2020s,” Chung projects. “But as the only purpose-built option for oceanic coverage, Starlink has the tech edge to eclipse Gogo long-term if execution goes well.”

judging Promised Performance

No flyer cares about press releases or theoretical performance. We suffer from bitter experience enduring laggy, disjointed inflight Wi-Fi for far too long!

Can Starlink and upgraded Gogo 5G finally deliver something functioning at acceptable internet speeds and latency?

Let’s see what’s theoretically possible based on claims:

Starlink Aviation Performance Goals

  • Speeds: 50 – 200+ Mbps per plane
  • Latency: 20 – 40 ms responce times

SpaceX is boldly promising fiber-optic-like internet seamlessness powered by satellites. For perspective, home fiber connections over wire typically deliver 50-1000+ Mbps depending on location.

“SpaceX deserves credit for setting customer expectations properly compared to past marketing hype,” Michael Planey tells flyers. “If realized, Starlink should beat current miserable inflight Wi-Fi and get pretty darn close to terrestrial standards.”

Gogo 5G Speed Targets

  • Speeds: ~16 Mbps per device x 100 devices = ~160 Mbps per plane
  • Latency: Sub 50 ms response times

Like Starlink, Gogo sets reasonable not pie-in-the-sky expectations. Again for perspective, average 5G download speeds on the ground currently reach around 100 Mbps in the US.

So Gogo is essentially promising to replicate standard US 5G cell performance in the air. Decent if it happens!

But both expert analysts I spoke to warn airlines to take any vendor promises with a grain of salt until live testing under load.

“Published performance speeds almost never equal real passenger experienced speeds with 30% or more people on a plane actively browsing and every teenager streaming YouTube,” cautions Michael Planey who has modeled countless wifi systems over decades. "Trust but verify with aircraft fully loaded per usual routes before committing."

So temper your expectations dear reader until these ambitious next generation systems get proven out under real airline travel conditions. But for now, major improvement seems highly likely.

Comparing Flyer Cost Considerations

As frequent flyers, we try tuning out the installation and operational costs borne by airlines running inflight Wi-Fi and how it may quietly inflate ticket prices.

But understanding the vendor pricing models does provide helpful context on the Starlink vs Gogo competitive environment from the airline procurement perspective.

Starlink Satellite Internet Fees

  • One-time hardware/installation fee: $150,000 per plane
  • Ongoing subscription: $12,500 – $25,000 per plane

Since Starlink owns the satellites, it avoids ongoing infrastructure access fees like Gogo pays to 5G companies. But the enormous flat fleet fees create affordability challenges for adoption beyond private chartered flights.

Gogo‘s 5G Business Model

  • Undisclosed one-time hardware/installation fee per plane
  • Income streams:
    • Airline subscription fees
    • Direct flyer $5-$40 access purchases
    • Flyer long-term monthly subscriptions

With airline relationships and hardware infrastructure long established, Gogo need "only" execute the 5G upgrades. And the airline + passenger payment system seems smarter for commercial flights focused on ticket price control.

Scaling Challenges Ahead

Both Starlink and Gogo face daunting execution challenges to deliver on their next generation promises at global scale. It‘s far from guaranteed.

Can SpaceX Manufacture Enough Satellites?

Starlink must exponentially grow satellite production across its Falcon 9 rocket launches from around 50/month now to over 120/month by 2027. Only then can continuous blanket coverage at the equator be truly global an reliable.

Their track record inspires confidence. But any setbacks compound when pursuing such hyper-growth.

Can Gogo‘s Telecom Partners Deliver Full 5G Coverage?

Patchwork tower infrastructure largely outside Gogo‘s control worries experts like Mary Chung:

"Rapid 5G densification required for Gogo to work as advertised demands big rural infrastructure investments from telecoms focused on profit-first," Chung cautions. "I fear coverage gaps persisting over oceans and causing airline customer defections to Starlink long-term.”

So while Gogo courts disaster placing trust in third parties, Starlink controls its own destiny. This tip the scales over the decade to come.

Hopeful For Seamless Skies Ahead

As you jet set across the world each year, the prospect excites of staying reliably connected inflight thanks to Starlink satellites or Gogo’s upgraded infrastructure.

Both solutions promise to launch decades-overdue internet from the air into the modern era. I evaluate Starlink as best positioned strategically thanks to SpaceX’s singular satellites at scale focus.

But prudent frequent flyers should temper expectations until airlines complete legitimate speed and latency testing with hundred of passively devices simultaneously connected. At least we finally see light at the end of the inflight Wi-Fi tunnel!

Bon voyage and happy streaming!

Carl Abbott
Principal Analyst
VX Aerospace

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