It shouldn't have worked, but I streamed an episode of Last Week Tonight, a Twitch broadcast of Fallout 4, the premiere episode of Aziz Ansari's Master of None and Meow the Jewels all at once, all on airplane WiFi. In-flight WiFi giant Gogo demoed its next-gen version of mile-high connectivity, 2Ku, above the overcast November skies of Gary, Indiana, bragging 98 percent coverage around the world (the poles don't play nicely with airborne internet) at peak speeds of 70 Mbps. The reality is transfers much slower than that on a plane with roughly 25 journalists, business folks and Gogo staff all doing the same as me: trying to break the internet for about an hour.
Everything about the flight was pretty standard. I had to go through security to get on the company's test-jet at the Gary/Chicago airport, the flight attendants asked me if I could comply with the exit row responsibilities and they of course went over the whole spiel about what will happen in the event of a crash. What was different was that I wasn't asked to put my devices in airplane mode or keep my computer put away during take-off. The smokestacks of Gary shrank below us as we pushed through the gray, drizzly skies to hit cruising altitude. Once we got above the clouds, the sky turned blue, my ears popped and the seatbelt sign turned off. The internet was fast, but it wasn't anything near the speed of my hotel room's WiFi. Speedtest rated it at 11.71 Mbps downloads, a 656-millisecond ping and uploads of 0.53 Mbps on my first try.
Then I threw everything I had at it: my iPad with HBO Go, my iPhone running a Twitch stream at source quality, Netflix and music streaming from my digital locker on Google Play Music. And lots and lots of speed tests. With all four services running at once, things got stuttery. I was able to watch, fittingly enough, a bandwidth hungry 1080p60 video of an airplane taking off without any buffering at the outset, but my first attempt to load Netflix resulted in the page 404'ng on me while I streamed El-P and Killer Mike's album made with cat sounds. Later, my Netflix stream remained solid and crisp, but HBO Go and Twitch were fuzzy and stilted, respectively. By bumping the Twitch quality down to high I got a loading spinner, and John Oliver looked very soft on my iPad in the seat beside me.
Pausing everything let Twitch stream. Sort of. Dropping it to medium gave me some level of consistency, but it was still spotty and never played through without a hitch. Granted, this is an extreme-use scenario because practically no one is going to run a quartet of streaming services simultaneously with a plane of others doing the same. When I focused just on one service, Netflix, the experience was awesome and did't stop a bit. It was actually pretty enjoyable. Ping is going to be a problem when you're that high in the air and reaching out to a satellite for a connection. With response times pushing past 1,000 milliseconds, I wasn't going to be doing any competitive gaming online but the only time I really noticed the lag was when I logged into our chat program, Slack, when I tried sending instant messages.
I can't help but feel like I'm sort of a jerk, poking holes in this though. Blame Louis CK's bit about a passenger on an airplane complaining about the WiFi speeds. What's here is good. In fact, it's much better than a standard plane's sub 2 Mbps speeds. It is wow-worthy? No, but if 2Ku hits wide adoption among airlines, it means I'm free of the tyranny of pre-selected in-flight media options -- and adding another item to my pre-flight checklist: loading an SD card full of entertainment.