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Virgin America, GoGo announce new, faster in-flight hybrid Wi-Fi system

Airplanes were once, for a while, a place where you could guarantee no cell service or Internet connectivity for the duration of your flight. Not any more.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Image: Virgin America

Sorry, business travelers. Flying with Virgin America will soon no longer mean you can pull off that often recycled excuse that, "I couldn't work because the Wi-Fi sucks on my flight," or that there isn't any altogether.

GoGo in-flight networking company and airline Virgin America have partnered up to provide faster Wi-Fi at thirty-thousand feet, in a bid to further appease the growing need to accommodate the needs of both business customers and consumers need for constant access to the outside world. 

GoGo airplane Internet access has up until now been powered by air-to-ground spectrum the company snapped up in 2006. But this mechanism isn't very fast — as anyone who has used in-flight Wi-Fi knows full well — and it only works over land. Perfect for Virgin America, which transports millions of customers each year across the U.S., but not so good for its transatlantic counterpart Virgin Atlantic, as its planes travel mostly over sea.

The new system leverages satellites, dubbed ground-to-orbit, which now connects users at fiber-like speeds of 60Mbps rather than 6-10Mbps, which are roughly comparable to 3G speeds. That's roughly a 20-fold increase from the older system, according to the company.

Business customers will now be able to access video calling and other high-bandwidth activities, including accessing Web-based applications. And consumers alike, it'll keep them connected to Facebook and Twitter, and streaming video content, such as Netflix and YouTube, while they're in the air.

But this won't be an overnight thing. GoGo will start adding this technology to planes later this year, and it's not expected to take off (excuse the pun) until mid-2014 at the earliest. And while just 53 aircraft will be fitted with the new antennas, it's certainly a push in the right direction. 

Although, in this day and age of constantly-connected devices and ever-buzzing smartphones, one wouldn't blame you if you wanted to grab a little shut-eye instead of bashing out those "all important sales figures."

Still, it's a strange state of affairs when Internet access in the air is faster than for most American homes on the ground.

That's technology for you. 

Correction at 4:40 p.m. ET: removed erroneous background on JetBlue as per the Journal's correction. 

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