Friday, September 12, 2014

No Luv for Southwest Wi-Fi

To say that I became a little obsessed with my terrible Wi-Fi experience on Southwest Airlines from LAS to HOU today is an understatement.



As anyone who may have been a follower of mine for the last 4 hours and has since decided to mute me will tell you, I was a little upset. So, instead of just randomly venting on Twitter about the whole thing, I figured I would be pointed and a bit constructive.

First, let me say how much I appreciate Southwest Airlines Customer Service. A kind fellow name Sean took care of me via Twitter and immediately had the $8 charge reversed, while still allowing me to use the painfully slow access to vent and investigate. So, kudos to you guys Southwest for not kicking me off even though I was hating for 2 hours on your service. Well played, and much appreciated. Despite what I said, your customer experience will keep me coming back as a customer, as long as I don't have work to do on the plane. Fair?

So, what's the issue?
Check this out: one of the great things about SWA is that they let you watch all the video you can ingest from a few channels through a partnership with Dish. Cool huh? Yeah, if that's all you wanna do.

Without actually having any under-the-hood privileges, I'm gonna make some assumptions:
1. The video is pushed to a local server on the plane and then fed to the customers. Multicast style, right?
2. Users are so swept away with the video offering, watching the game, TLC, and what not, that they do that the majority of the time .. unless they're a nut like me who's trying to do a few things at a time.
3. All of that video is basically on-net at that point so the quality is perfect. And it is perfect, beautiful streams to tablets, mobiles, and laptops alike.

Here's where I *think* the issue is: the Access Point on the plane.
Here's why:

I dug around as much as I could to find out who on God's green Earth was responsible for the Southwest Wi-Fi offering. I even reached out to @FlyerTalk on Twitter to see if they had any thing I could reference.

You bet they did, 5 pages worth of posts dedicated to how terrible the Wi-Fi is on SWA. Some even hitting directly on the head of what I thought part of the issue was:


What I found was that a bunch of years back Southwest awarded the contract to a group called Row44. Row44 was acquired by Advanced Inflight Alliance back in 2012. Since then an award was made to Kontron to take care of the in-flight entertainment and inflight wi-fi component of the system.
So, Kontron has the contract via Row44, and they deploy this thing:


Even if you have very limited experience with Wi-Fi you'll probably notice the batwings on this thing. A trained eye shows you it's a Motorola 7131. But hey, it lists that on the product page, so if you don't know (as Biggie Smalls would say) Now ya know.. 

So, all that being said, let's look at what we have. A satellite feed to the internet from the airplane, a media server pulling in feeds from 8 or so networks, a Motorola 7131 AP distributing the service, a bunch of clients connecting. On my flight, I used my trusty super fancy AngryIP tool to show me 16 users pingable.

If, let's assume, 80% of those 16 are streaming video, let's say 13 users, at a pretty high bitrate from the media server, lets say 4mbps, you get 52mbps steady flowing through that device. On the network connection side, if it's pulling in 8 feeds at 8mbps each, that 64mbps on the satellite link. 
I don't know what the capacity of the sat feed from Row44 is, but that's gotta be taxing it .. jus a lil bit.

UPDATE: it's 11Mbps. Ouch. Here's what I read:

http://new.row44.com/products/inflight-broadband-internet/

On the AP side, pushing a steady 52 mbps across that access point to 13 clients might be making things more than uncomfortable.

Let's reference Keith Parsons fantastic Wi-Fi Stress Test Report from last year to see some digits.

Enterprise class AP's under a load similar to that of what we are dealing with basically begin to implode at around 15 user mark when streaming video. Even more fun happens when you look at error rates. 


Look at that.. right around the 12-15 device mark.

Truth be told, I had forgotten what the specifc numbers were from this report until I just now opened it to grab some screen shots. The fact that it's right on the money isn't a surprise, it's just reassuring that Keith and I both know what we're doing :)

So, how do you fix it?
Well, Southwest Airlines, all ya gotta do is call. :) Your APs are wetting the bed and making customers like me think twice about who I fly, all because of your WiFi. If you don't think its a big deal, all you gotta do is wait. Wait for the iPhone 6 to start sucking down even larger amounts of data. Wait for more carriers to adopt T-Mobile's wi-fi texting and multimedia messaging. Wait for more customers to move all their apps to the cloud and demand higher amounts of service because their Dropbox is updating and their Office 365 won't load. 

I hope this helps ya. And if you need anything, my contact info is on the right of your screen. I can help you fix this.

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