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Gogo, United on Poor In-Flight Wi-Fi Connectivity: Relief Is Coming

Things got a little tense in this session.

Asa Mathat

The fact that you can surf the Web while flying 35,000 feet in the air is pretty amazing. But for anyone who has done it, you know the experience isn’t great. The connection can be unreliable. The speeds can be slow. And the prices can be, ahem, sky high.

Today at Code/Mobile, Re/code’s Walt Mossberg filleted executives of two of the companies providing in-flight Wi-Fi: Gogo and United Airlines.

First up was Thomas O’Toole, head of United Airlines’ loyalty program and senior vice president of marketing. Mossberg asked why the airline has lagged behind its competitors in offering Wi-Fi connectivity on its planes.

“United was the first American carrier to offer Wi-Fi on international flights. That was in January 2012, but since then, United has lagged. You’re exactly right,” said O’Toole.

O’Toole explained that United lagged in technical implementation for several reasons. The first is that it wanted to maintain total control over what happens with the bandwidth on the plane, which is more difficult to implement. And it also had to use a satellite system that could provide Wi-Fi connectivity even flying over the North Pole or in the middle of the Pacific.

But O’Toole said the airline is now installing equipment on one aircraft per day, and expects to be done with its entire fleet of 700 planes by next year. He added that the average customer complaint rate is typically now under one percent versus six months ago, when it was in the single digits.

“It sucked for awhile,” O’Toole said.

Mossberg quickly shot back: “It sucked Sunday, two days ago.” Another conference attendee shouted her grievances about United’s Wi-Fi experience from the audience.

Ash ElDifrawi, Gogo’s chief commercial officer, stepped in to say, “Relief is on the way, and some of it is already on the way.”

ElDifrawi said that a quarter of planes are using Gogo’s second-generation technology, which increases Wi-Fi speeds from three megabits per second to 10 Mbps, but that the next stage is a little more difficult.

“It’s going to take a little time to move to the next level of technology. It’s not like putting another router in Starbucks, but it’s coming,” he said. Gogo is currently working on a service that will provide speeds of 70 Mbps in the next six months and 100 Mbps in 2016.

Gogo’s airline partners include Virgin America, American Airlines and Delta. While United offers its own Wi-Fi service, the airline recently announced a deal to have Gogo provide Internet service on United’s p.s. Premium Service flights between New York and both Los Angeles and San Francisco. Meanwhile, another company called Global Eagle Entertainment provides Internet access for Southwest flights, and AT&T will soon be joining the fray.

In April, the wireless carrier announced plans to provide its own in-flight Internet access by as early as late next year for both business planes and commercial aircraft. Though pricing hasn’t been revealed, the carrier said it is developing new air-to-ground technology to be able to provide in-flight connectivity based on 4G LTE standards.

When asked about that, ElDrifrawi said, “Based on what [T-Mobile CEO] John Legere said earlier, they just have a penchant for getting their ass kicked.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.