Hands-on with BetaBlue, JetBlue's WiFi-equipped Airbus

Generally we're the type to pass out the second we've stowed our carry-on items safely in the overhead bin, but on a recent test flight for a gang of reporters, photographers, Fortune 500 execs, and the obligatory PR team, JetBlue managed to keep us awake by magically letting us communicate with our friends and colleagues on the ground over IM and email.

Actually, it takes a lot more than magic for the Airbus A320 named "BetaBlue" to bring limited WiFi connectivity to properly-equipped passengers throughout the single-class cabin: quite a bit of technical and administrative work went into getting this service off the ground, from snatching up and deploying a rare slice of 800MHz ground-to-air spectrum to effectively managing cell tower connections while traveling over 500mph to developing clients that would maximize the precious bandwidth being shared by so many mobile gadget lovers. Keep reading after the break for all of our impressions from this media preview voyage, and don't forget to hit up the gallery below for glimpses of the entire experience along with some of the screenshots you can expect to see in-flight...


With a number of DirecTV and XM stations available from every armrest, JetBlue is already one of the more progressive airlines when it comes to whiling away those boring hours en route to your destination, so the newly-available IM and email access will certainly appeal to people already fond of the airline's perks. It remains to be seen, however, whether this prime example of a walled garden will drive enough interest to warrant the cost of a fleet-wide rollout.

After an opening pep talk by founder and chairman David Neeleman (who's much more handsome in person than he appears above) once the plane had reached 10,000 feet, LiveTV techs turned on the switch, and we all eagerly booted up our devices to discover...nothing was working. Although we could connect to the unsecured network and navigate to the Yahoo! landing pages -- which are cached locally -- we were unable to either get our mail or our chat on. Much confusion ensued among the frightened journos, but after about 20 minutes, a simple Ctl-Alt-Delete on some server was all it took to initiate a fairly steady connection to ground-based towers.

We say fairly steady to highlight one of the main drawbacks of the system, which is the fact that the airplane can't help but hitting a number of dead spots as it orchestrates hand-offs between towers; down times are said to be around a minute or less, which isn't huge for non-streaming applications, though it's still somewhat irksome to be chatting in Messenger and have to drop off an average of ten times per cross-country flight.

Once we were signed in to our Yahoo accounts (which you'll need to have before you board the plane; we didn't notice any options to create one in the air) in Firefox, the page almost immediately switched to either a simple mail interface or more full-featured, Flash-based IM client with tabs, buddy lists, and all the fixin's. We successfully chatted with several people on the ground, and were even able to send and receive text messages, a feature which is sure to appeal to even non-business travelers. Once the service goes live, chatters in the air will have the option of selecting from such clever status notices as "Flying High with BetaBlue," ensuring that everyone can see how techie they are.

BlackBerry-based connectivity was equally flawless, with familiar icons guiding users to the new features when connected to a BetaBlue access point. Unfortunately, we were not able to get past the landing screen when trying to connect on our HTC TyTN II running WinMo 6, and we're pretty sure that we had the latest version of Flash installed, too. Presumably, though, even non-traditional computing devices such as an Archos 605 WiFi with browser plug-in should be able to take advantage of the network. And as long as you're signed in to Messenger, your Buddies on the ground can track your flight visually through Yahoo Maps .

Ultimately the utility of this service comes down to one's own particular mindset, it would seem: those folks who just want to stay connected at any cost will find this to be a great perk that isn't available anywhere else, while anyone expecting an open pipe or even broadband speeds is likely to be severely disappointed. When and if JetBlue begins adding more local multimedia content and opening up its network to other service providers, however, BetaBlue could eventually force other domestic carriers to finally get with the times and stop ruining our otherwise ubiquitous connections to the Grid.