The race is on to deliver in-flight WiFi that matches at-home quality.
First out of the gate is JetBlue with Fly-Fi, a satellite system that the carrier claims is eight times faster than anything in the air right now. But JetBlue is planning to share the fun.
Later this year, JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV and ViaSat will also provide WiFi aboard the former Continental Airlines aircraft in United’s fleet.
At the same time, Gogo, which provides WiFi services to 80% of the connected fleet flying U.S. skies today, has announced a hybrid product, Gogo GTO (ground to orbit), which combines satellite with on-the-ground networks. Virgin America is slated to be Gogo’s launch partner next year.
Gogo claims that GTO will deliver 60 megabytes per second (Mbps) per aircraft, substantially faster than the 3.1 Mbps delivered by its original Air to Ground network and the 9.8 Mbps its year-old, next-generation Air to Ground service delivers.
Fly-Fi, which manages its service on a per-passenger rather than per-plane basis, delivers 12 Mbps per passenger, according to Don Buchman, director of mobile broadband for ViaSat.
In a flight last week undertaken to introduce the media to the Fly-Fi technology, the 50 journalists aboard a JetBlue A320 were able to stream video content without interruptions,
Skype, tweet, post on Facebook and in general enjoy at-home-level connectivity above 10,000 feet.
Members of the media doing in-flight tests aboard last week’s flight reported speeds of 28 Mbps for downloads and upload speeds of 500 kilobytes per second (Kbps). That is roughly the equivalent of an 802.11g wireless router for home WiFi, which has a rated top speed of 54 Mbps but typically produces real-world download speeds of 20 to 30 Mbps.
Steve Nolan, Gogo’s spokesman, said Gogo is using a hybrid system that employs Air to Ground for uploads because upload speeds are slower using a satellite system than they are using Air to Ground signals.
Buchman responded that the Internet is a download-centric technology and that on flights eight times more data is downloaded than uploaded. He said that Fly-Fi uses the same scheme for uploads and downloads but added that only a few applications are upload-centric — for example, such things as high-definition video conferencing.
All home-based Internet services offer higher bandwidth for downloads than for uploads, although the disparity between sending and receiving speeds differs by product.
ViaSat also provides services to 600,000 at-home subscribers. ViaSat1, the satellite that provides Internet service to Fly-Fi, also provides bandwidth to some of those home subscribers.
ViaSat was the fastest-growing ISP provider in the U.S. for two out of the last four quarters, Buchman said.
JetBlue, which now has three planes with Fly-Fi, will have two more by the end of this month. By the end of 2014, it will available on 140 aircraft. The carrier will equip its A320s and A321s at the rate of 15 per month and will complete installation of Fly-Fi on its Embraer 190 fleet in 2015.
During the beta rollout, JetBlue will offer free basic Web browsing, a service it calls Simply Surf. The high-bandwidth Fly-Fi Plus service will cost $9 per hour.
Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.
Correction: LiveTV is a JetBlue subsidiary, but ViaSat is not. A previous version of this report erroneously said that both were JetBlue subsidiaries.