Gogo unveils in-flight text, talk service at 30,000 feet

CNET boarded a private jet at New Jersey’s Newark Airport to test Gogo’s latest in-flight talk and texting service.

(Credit: Zack Whittaker/CNET)

AT 30,000 FEET ABOVE NEW YORK — Gone are the days when aircraft were metal tubes of isolation. Get ready to hear more “Hello? I’m on a plane” on your cross-country flights.

Gogo has unveiled its latest in-flight technology, allowing smartphone users to make phone calls and send text messages as if they were on the ground. The aircraft connectivity giant on Friday touted its Text & Talk technology to CNET aboard a private jet, departing from and returning to New Jersey’s Newark International Airport.

While in-flight Wi-Fi is far from new and is increasingly popular among consumers and business customers across the United States, other means of communications — such as calling and texting — have taken a back seat in favor of social media sites and movie streaming.

By utilizing the company’s air-to-ground connectivity, calls and texts back on Earth are now routed through the aircraft’s wireless network rather than in-flight cell towers, or “picocells.”

Users aboard commercial flights with Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi access can download a companion app, which the company describes as an “extension” of the regular cellular network. This allows smartphone users to roam on the in-flight network as if they were connected to a land-based cell network.

Gogo product manager Tony LaMarca told CNET on the ground how aware the company was for the demand. “We tried to find something that worked, but there was nothing that was quite exactly what end users wanted,” he said. “We looked at a number of solutions and started from scratch.”

The Text & Talk service currently works for Android devices and iPhones. The company is looking at supporting Windows Phone in the near future.

Brad Jaehn, Gogo vice-president of product, told CNET the service will launch on commercial flights in the first quarter of 2014, with the rest of the year spent on further development and testing.

Pricing has yet to be announced. “We’re still working out the business model,” Jaehn said.

During in-flight testing, the app worked well. Text messages were sent instantly and received just as quickly. While the app itself is still in “beta” development, its functionality remains simple. Voice calls were problematic, but are much at the mercy of the plane’s Wi-Fi network.

New rules by the Federal Aviation Administration now allow consumers to use devices throughout the full leg of their flight, subject to individual airline rules. However, any device that transfers data requires it switched into “airplane mode,” meaning you can’t make a call at the departing gate and carry it on through takeoff and landing.

The company has more than 6,000 Gogo-equipped aircraft, from American Airlines, Delta, United, and Virgin America.

Follow #gogocnet on Twitter for coverage from the aircraft as-it-happened.