MIAMI — Want the fastest available inflight Internet? Virgin America thinks you do, and it’s installing ViaSat’s Ka-band satellite connectivity on its next ten Airbus A320 aircraft, which start arriving in just two months. Apart from the streaming video-capable connection over the continental US, which passengers on jetBlue’s A320 family and United’s Boeing 737 family aircraft already rate highly, the move is important because Virgin will deploying the world’s first hybrid Ka-Ku antenna, also provided by ViaSat.
The first Ka-band-equipped Airbus A320 aircraft will arrive this September, and since ViaSat’s Ka-band coverage is currently limited to the continental US it would seem logical that this aircraft would be generally limited to those flights. A Virgin America spokesperson confirmed to Airways that “we will upgrade these 10 aircraft to ViaSat’s new hybrid Ku/Ka-band antenna starting in early 2016,” when the aircraft intended for Hawaii flights start arriving outfitted with the hybrid system.
Much like JetBlue, the Ka-band service will be free for the initial beta period, with Virgin America noting that it intends to announce pricing for the service next year. Last month the airline unveiled its updated Android-based Red Beta inflight entertainment system, and an upgraded connectivity system — particularly given the rise of on-demand video like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video — adds to Virgin America’s arsenal on the increasingly competitive transcontinental market.
“Bringing ViaSat’s satellite-based wifi product to our new delivery aircraft will again allow us to make an industry-leading investment in our product. We are excited about this new technology and the possibility it opens up for wifi coverage on our new Hawaii flights and for travelers who wish to stream video inflight,” Virgin America’s director of product design and innovation Ken Bieler explains.
Virgin’s decision would seem to throw doubt on its commitment to ViaSat competitor Gogo, whose share price dropped over 5 percent today. It was only six months ago that Virgin America was celebrating being the first airline to offer Gogo’s ATG-4 connectivity fleetwide. ATG-4 maxes out at around 10 Mbps per aircraft, the speed of a reasonable home ADSL connection — but shared between nearly 200 of your closest friends on board an A320, ATG-4 slows significantly. Gogo’s dynamic pricing has risen significantly in an attempt to control demand enough to provide a usable experience.
In 2013 Virgin and Gogo announced plans to move to a hybrid Ku-ATG-4 system called GTO (which essentially combines the connectivity of both systems to max out at around 60 Mbps per aircraft), but last year the airline began studying Gogo’s 2Ku system (which combines two Ku-band antennas to likely max out around 70 Mbps per aircraft).
Compare those with the test speeds on the ViaSat-JetBlue media proving flight (while a planeful of aviation and tech media were streaming, webcasting and downloading to try to make the system fall over):
Virgin America is playing coy about its intentions with 2Ku, particularly around whether the airline intends to refit it to the existing fleet. “We have not yet made a technology decision with respect to an upgrade for the rest of the fleet,” a spokesperson tells Airways, but it would be very surprising if such a small airline were to operate systems from two entirely separate inflight connectivity providers.
ViaSat’s inflight wifi head Don Buchman, whose official title is VP and general manager of the company’s commercial mobility business, emphasises the USPs of ViaSat’s system: “Our competitive advantage is rooted in the unique bandwidth economics of ViaSat-1 and the forthcoming ViaSat-2 satellite networks. We can empower airlines to engage all of their guests in an in-flight, online experience just like they’d get on the ground – including streaming high quality video.”
ViaSat-2, of course, is due to be launched by the SpaceX Falcon Heavy system, which last month suffered a catastrophic launch failure during a resupply mission to the International Space Station. Its coverage will be needed for Mexico and Caribbean flights, and it will also provide redundancy and extra capacity over the US.