On a flight yesterday from JFK to Austin, JetBlue finally decided to flip the switch on Fly-Fi, giving lucky passengers an early look at the airline’s next-generation in-flight WiFi for the very first time. A flight attendant announced the service — which is free until 30 planes are retrofitted — and passengers seated around me pulled out their laptops, tablets and smartphones and tried to hop online. Unfortunately, a recent update caused unexpected performance issues, and Fly-Fi’s speed and consistency fell far short. When a flight attendant asked the woman seated in front if me if she had enjoyed her experience at the end of the flight, she responded with “not so much.” It wasn’t looking good for JetBlue.
I had booked my return to New York on the same aircraft, and following a 20-minute BBQ pitstop at AUS, I got back on board. The issues we experienced on the first flight — allegedly caused by an incorrect DNS-server listing on the network side — were completely resolved, making our three-hour hop back to Kennedy Airport much more pleasant. The experience was completely different, though we were offline for 30 minutes or so as we passed over Louisiana and Mississippi. Ultimately, Fly-Fi, which utilizes the ViaSat-1 satellite positioned over North America, was in line with the ViaSat service I’ve tried on the ground — when it works, it blows the competition out of the water. It’s as close as you’ll get to the internet you’re used to at home, and it certainly outshines connectivity in pretty much any airline terminal.
JetBlue’s LiveTV subsidiary, which installs and supports the service, quoted speeds of 12 Mbps per passenger during our tour back in September. It’s an ambitious figure, and with 100 passengers streaming Netflix and Hulu, that promise might be a bit of a stretch. On yesterday’s flight from Austin, however, I had no problem loading picture-heavy websites and videos on YouTube after upgrading to Fly-Fi Plus, which currently costs $9 per hour (ouch!), but can be “paused” to maximize usage. I also completed tasks that you’re unlikely to conduct in the air, like transferring files to and from an FTP server and hosting a Google video Hangout with three friends. Audio was inconsistent during the Hangout and the data transfer was sluggish, but with ViaSat optimizing the network for video streaming, that’s to be expected.
Ordinary usage, like text chats with colleagues, loading hundreds of tweets, streaming music on Spotify and sending and receiving emails went off without a hitch, and were possible with the free service. I even sent some photos via email and HipChat, which were received quickly and without the nasty compression we’ve come to expect from current-gen Gogo. During a handful of speed tests, download bandwidth varied from 1 Mbps to 30 Mbps (most often falling around 15 Mbps), while upload bandwidth hovered around 0.5 Mbps.
ViaSat limits the uplink from each plane in order to maximize downloads. That helps to explain why attempted Skype and Google Voice calls failed, and while my friends looked fine in the Hangout, I appeared slightly pixelated on their computers. It’s also important to note that ViaSat-1 hovers some 22,000 miles above Earth, so an ~ 800-millisecond ping is to be expected. Upload speeds are unlikely to improve (so save those large file transfers for the ground), but that 12-megabits-per-seat figure we’ve heard seems reasonable with only a few dozen passengers online (and even fewer streaming HD video). The 30-minute outage we experienced should also be a non-issue by the time Fly-Fi exits beta, sometime within the next few weeks.
Following the hiccups during that first-ever Fly-Fi flight yesterday morning, I was a bit concerned about the program’s future. After taking it for a spin on the trip back, however, it was impossible not to get excited about the service’s potential, and the future of in-flight connectivity in general. LiveTV is currently working to outfit JetBlue’s fleet, and will soon launch the service on select United 737s as well. For now, you’ll only find the service on two of JetBlue’s workhorse A320s, but they’re not assigned to specific flights until a few days before departure, so don’t plan your holiday travel around trying out Fly-Fi. The airline may eventually identify flights in advance, and all A320s should be online by mid-2014. United hasn’t announced rollout plans just yet, but as LiveTV begins to retrofit that airline’s planes as well, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a similar test in the weeks and months to come.