There Are Now More Than 2,011 North American Planes Outfitted With WiFi

Everything is amazing and only Gogo's investors are happy.
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A human using Internet — though probably not Gogo's WiFi — on a plane (Reuters).

It used to be that a traveler could escape the reaches of the Internet by flying 30,000 feet into the air in a metal tube outfitted with jet engines. At those altitudes, it was difficult to provide broadband, so people did crossword puzzles, finally read that Patti Smith autobiography, made fun of SkyMall, and had too many whiskeys. A worker was not really expected to work, even if the hours were on the clock. A spreadsheet would open here. A highlighter might get chewed on there. Documents sat on tray tables in unlocked positions. 

But really, planes were for sleeping and reading, being bored and getting tipsy. Sometimes, one talked with one's seatmates, who were a real crapshoot, it must be said. 

Gogo changed that. They started outfitting planes with WiFi. Then they charged customers to use it. They were a throwback business: an Internet Service Provider. But for the sky. 

Many poked fun at the idea of WiFi in the sky. Most famously Louis CK, when he mocked the latest generation for its niggling complaints in the face of technical greatness in his Conan rant Everything Is Amazing and Nobody Is Happy. "I'm sitting on the plane and they go, 'Open up your laptop.' And you can go on the Internet and it's fast and I'm watching YouTube clips. It's amazing," Louis CK says. "Then it breaks down and they apologize the Internet is not working and the guy next to me goes, 'Pua! This is bullshit.' Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago."

So there were these three camps: 1) people who thought WiFi in the sky was amazing, 2) people who liked in-flight WiFi but thought it sucked, and 3) people who missed the good old days when they looked at the emergency instructions for entertainment while not working. 

Investors, apparently, agree with Louis CK. Gogo inflight Internet is amazing, they said today, after the company reported its most recent earnings. Gogo's stock is up more than 25 percent on news that the company plans to make more money selling plane WiFi than expected. 

For those without shares, there was another interesting number: Gogo says it has equipped more than 2,011 planes with Internet service. (Boeing says there are something like 6,600 commercial planes flying in North America.) 

Though exact statistics aren't available, a New York Times story from earlier this year pegged the company's market share at greater than 80 percent, listing its competitors as Panasonic Avionics, Row 44, ViaSat, and OnAir. So, in rough terms, perhaps one-third of North American planes have Internet onboard.

And for everyone worried about an age when every place on Earth is blanketed in Internet and all humanity does is stare at computers, take heart in the fact that only 5.8 percent of passengers who could have purchased WiFi from Gogo actually did so. The other 94 percent are still happily drinking in the past, reading biographies, and talking to their seatmates about their collections of antique porcelain frogs. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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