20,000ft OVER MASSACHUSETTS — It may be ice cold at New York’s JFK airport, but the demand for in-flight WiFi is red hot. Nearly every major airline in the United States offers in-flight connectivity… except JetBlue. While Delta has had the ancient DC-9 zipping around with WiFi for years, JetBlue has been laying low. They did toy with WiFi in the past, but have since passed on the dog’s breakfast of technologies between then and now, waiting for something better. Enter Fly-Fi.
Fly-Fi is a new type of in-flight connectivity, utilizing Ka-band satellites from partner ViaSat, instead of traditional Ku-band satellites or an air-to-ground network. Ka-band connectivity promises much faster connection speeds than the older technologies; up to 12 Mbps per passenger. JetBlue has been working with ViaSat for over three years in preparation for the launch. The increased download speeds should even allow passengers to watch streaming video such as Netflix in-flight, something current systems either struggle with or outright ban.
Promises of faster speeds are nice, but how well does it work in reality? On Wednesday morning, JetBlue whisked a group of journalists into the skies over New England to find out.
“This has been a labor of love, for sure,” said Chris Collins, COO LiveTV. “This is state-of-the-art, next generation WiFi. Everyone here is getting a very good experience, and I don’t think you see that on any of the competitors at this point.”
For now, Collins is spot on the money. Even on the basic level of service, WiFi speeds peaked at over over 20 Mbps, faster than most 4G LTE connections on the ground. While upload speeds are considerably slower at less than 1 Mbps, I was still able to successfully live-stream a portion of the flight with what seemed to be only minor pixelation or compression. Collins expects the Fly-Fi system to be available for the first flight of JetBlue’s new Airbus A321.
Speedtest of the basic JetBlue Fly-Fi service. (the ping is incorrectly measured)
With WiFi now on board, will passengers stop watching the free seatback TVs? “I think it’s more about offering our passengers choices,” said Rachel McCarthy, VP of Inflight at JetBlue. “We knew a few years ago when we looked at the options that TV is still important; people like having TV. But they are used to having multiple devices, so I think it’s an added benefit.”
Currently, the Fly-Fi system will not support the streaming of local content like Gogo Vision on Delta and American, but McCarthy says “never say never,” and that the possibility is always on the table in the future. Also in the near future, power outlets will be coming to all JetBlue aircraft. Currently, only a few A320s have power outlets in select rows, but power outlets are expected to start rolling out to additional aircraft next year.
JetBlue plans to offer basic Fly-Fi connectivity for free while the first thirty aircraft are fitted with the system. During this time, passengers can upgrade to a faster tier, more suitable for streaming video, for a steep $9/hour. JetBlue expects its entire Airbus A320 fleet to be fitted with Fly-Fi by mid-2014, with the Embraer E190 fleet at some point thereafter.