It's a small miracle that you can open up your laptop and surf the web while soaring through the air in a metal tube some seven miles above the ground, but the experience is inconsistent, and when it works, the connection is often frustratingly sluggish. That's about to change.
Once focused on undercutting the competition, JetBlue is now best known for its in-flight product: complimentary snacks, 36 channels of free DirecTV and friendly flight attendants. This year, the airline is undergoing a service alteration of sorts. The traditionally all-coach carrier will soon cater to business travelers with a bed-equipped premium cabin, and by the end of next year, all customers will be able to surf the web from 36,000 feet with speeds that rival (or often exceed) what we're used to on the ground. That new service, powered by ViaSat, is called Fly-Fi, and it's hitting the skies this November.
We spent a day with JetBlue's subsidiary, LiveTV, the company responsible for providing in-flight entertainment (IFE) on more than 600 aircraft, including 188 JetBlue planes and some 200 United 737s. If you've watched DirecTV while flying either of those airlines, it's LiveTV that put it there, and soon, the Florida-based firm will be responsible for getting you online, too. Fly-Fi, and its to-be-named United equivalent, will deliver up to 12 Mbps of data -- not to the aircraft, but to each and every passenger on board. Join us aboard JetBlue's first Fly-Fi-equipped Airbus A320 after the break.
A tour of JetBlue's Fly-Fi-equipped A320
LiveTV's Chief Operating Officer, Chris Collins, was our host in Orlando. He led us through the first plane, detailing the work involved in getting each jet up to speed. His team will be processing aircraft at an Orlando hanger, along with a satellite facility in Washington to help accelerate the process. The required equipment, which represents a 350-pound addition, consists of an antenna and radome rig mounted atop the plane, ViaSat and LiveTV components installed in the belly and up to three Motorola access points -- in the case of the A320, they're installed directly above rows 20, 11 and 4, enabling a consistent signal throughout the cabin. All of the equipment is hidden from view, but JetBlue may identify Fly-Fi planes with a WiFi sticker near the entrance, along with a visible SSID, which should pop up if your bird is equipped.
After receiving FAA approval earlier this month, the first plane has been touring the country on regular passenger routes. LiveTV technicians are occasionally on board to test the service from the air, while customers remain unaware -- with the SSID hidden from view, there's only a small WiFi panel identifying the first plane, a 150-seater named "Got Blue." We tour that A320 in the video embedded below.
There are a handful of in-flight WiFi options available today. Most are passable, but not great, and they're certainly no match for the 12 Mbps transfer rate that each passenger should expect when JetBlue's service launches in November. The most prevalent is Gogo's ground-to-air service. It's on more than 1,500 aircraft that operate in the US, letting you hop online while flying airlines like American, Delta and Virgin America, just to name a few. That system works with cellular towers installed throughout the 48 contiguous states -- throughput for an entire plane is comparable to what you'd get from a single 3G cell phone on the ground, give or take, so as you can expect, it's not blazing fast. Gogo's next-generation network, ATG-4, offers some additional capacity. It's an improvement, sure, but it's not in the same league as Fly-Fi. That company does plan to introduce a Ku-band offering in the future, with Ka compatibility on the roadmap as well.
LiveTV's system links up with ViaSat-1, a Ka-band satellite capable of delivering more than 140 Gbps of throughput to customers around the country. It will also be compatible with ViaSat-2, which is expected to launch in 2016. ViaSat launched its consumer service early last year, and Fly-Fi utilizes the same satellite and ground infrastructure. The Exede residential product has proven to be a top option for folks without access to land-based broadband, and while latency made certain tasks difficult (gaming, for instance), we were generally impressed during our review. The best part: you can expect similar performance on board all of JetBlue's Airbus A320s, A321s and Embraer 190s, after the installation is complete.
What we didn't get to do on this trip, unfortunately, was actually hop online at 500 MPH. We'll be on board the official premier flight in November, which will serve as the first opportunity for the public to take Fly-Fi for a spin. Our A320 was prepped to perform, but JetBlue and LiveTV are using the next few weeks to sort out any kinks before letting us push the service to its limits. Still, we have a good idea of what to expect.
Fly-Fi will have a "free component" until after the first 30 planes are ready to roll, sometime next year. We're not exactly sure what you'll get without paying a cent, but you can expect the basics (email, browsing) to be available without charge. Streaming video, however, could carry a fee -- JetBlue's still working on its pricing model there. Additionally, to maintain friendly skies, the airline will be restricting VoIP apps whenever possible, along with inappropriate web content, such as pornography. You'll only be able to get online above 10,000 feet, but like LiveTV's television service, which works on the ground, you may eventually be able to surf from the moment you step onto the plane until it's time to leave, pending FAA approval.
LiveTV, which handles every step of the process, from design to manufacture to support, is also working on its next-generation IFE solution, LTV4, which will deliver content on larger displays with hundreds of potential channel options. It'll roll out to JetBlue planes first, but other airlines may follow suit soon after. By the time LTV4 launches, however, thousands of passengers will already have access to ViaSat's WiFi solution, letting you stream content to laptops, tablets or smartphones from the web. The company's upcoming entertainment platform does sound appealing, but even with on-demand content and an abundance of television programming, it won't hold a candle to the virtually limitless amount of content available on the world wide web.
Supporting Fly-Fi at JetBlue's LiveTV
Update: We incorrectly reported that the antenna and radome weigh a total of 400 pounds. The entire installation, including all of the required equipment, weighs in at about 350 pounds. As for Fly-Fi-related hardware on top of the plane, there's the Ka antenna (75 pounds), the radome (70 pounds) and the fairing (30 pounds), representing a total of 175 pounds. We apologize for the inaccuracy.