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What's Up with JetBlue's In-Flight WiFi?

July 1, 2013 at 4:46 PM | by | ()

Consider the night sky. On a clear evening you can count on twinkling stars, the moon, a couple planets and, every so often, the faint blink of a passing aircraft. Now think about all the satellites flitting around up there; Quora puts the number at 3,500-ish, or 3,501-ish if you consider that even JetBlue now has their own (named ViaSat-1) to support what they hope will be "the industry's best inflight broadband for commercial aviation."

That's right—we're talking about in-flight WiFi on JetBlue, or "Fly-Fi" as they've dubbed it. Fly-Fi is already active on one A320 aircraft—that's tail N804JB "Got Blue?" for all you with an eye to the sky—and the test flights finished up last week. It shouldn't be much longer now until FAA certification and then the fun can really begin.

So how exactly will JetBlue Fly-Fi differ from the in-flight internet you already know and love onboard other airlines? Two words: FREE and FAST. This isn't a rumor; the fact that Fly-Fi will be offered as a complimentary amenity to passengers has been confirmed by JetBlue, with CEO Dave Barger recently tweeting: "[Fly-Fi] is going to be free and plenty to go around!" Or, as Barger put it in 2010 when the deal was signed, Fly-Fi is "...designed for the 21st century, not just for today's personal connectivity needs, but with the bandwidth to expand to meet tomorrow's needs as well."

JetBlue's official social butterfly Morgan Johnston explains the "hurry up and wait" period in which Fly-Fi is currently stuck: "With the proving flights complete, the plane sits and waits for the FAA to review all the documentation and issue a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC). Once that STC is issued, the plane can fly again, go through some performance testing, and then we can start showing it off."

Time to delve into the nitty gritty for a moment. Ever notice that all of JetBlue's planes, whether Airbus A320s or Embraer E190s, have a little pimple on their backs? That white bump is called a radome and it houses the mini Ku-band (12-18 GHz) antennae that receive all the lovely live TV channels to be enjoyed on the seatback screens. As JetBlue works to make their Fly-Fi fleet-wide, these radomes will grow a bit to make room for a second receiver, as Fly-Fi is Ka-band (26.5-40 GHz). Check out our peek into the FlyNet radome of a Lufthansa plane.

The radome

And now, as you're likely thinking free and fast fleet-wide satellite WiFi all sounds too good to be true, Johnston admits that it kinda is:

We've publicly stated that we'll offer Fly-Fi service without additional charge for at least until the first 30 aircraft are equipped, at which point we may look at various models. What we can say is, we'll approach the as we always do, in a very JetBlue way. A lot of the other systems with limited bandwidth purposely price their services out of range for most passengers to artificially limit the number of simultaneous connections and protect their bandwidth, but with enough bandwidth, we'd like to offer a product that every customer on board can utilize.

Chillax. We've been assured that NetFlix and Hulu will work on Fly-Fi, so if they do eventually move to charging for Fly-Fi use, at least it'll be worth it.

The road to JetBlue Fly-Fi

· December 2007: JetBlue's first, very limited attempt at WiFi takes off onboard "BetaBlue."
· June 2009: We fly BetaBlue and manage to send some Yahoo emails between JFK and LAX
· September 2010: JetBlue signs the deal to begin development of Fly-Fi, a partnership between JetBlue's LiveTV and ViaSat
· October 2011: ViaSat-1 satellite launched from Kazakhstan
· June 24, 2013: First Fly-Fi test flight
· June 26, 2013: Fly-Fi proving flights are complete
· TBD: First passengers log on to Fly-Fi
· 2014: JetBlue ramps up installations with the goal of fleet-wide Fly-Fi

BONUS! JetBlue's newer A320s will also have power outlets at the Even More Space seats. Yippee! Before boarding your plane, have a peek out the windows to see if you can read the aircraft's tail number or at least its name by the nose. That way you'll know before even settling into your seat if you'll have power or not. You'll want to look for tails number N804JB and higher.

Sandbags stand in for passengers because the "FAA prohibits ride alongs to essential testing personnel only"

A photo of the Florida coastline near Tampa, tweeted from Fly-Fi during testing

Fun fact: The ViaSat-1 satellite launched in October 2011 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which also happened to be the spot from where cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off to become the first person in space on April 12, 1961. It's like Russia's version of Cape Canaveral.

[Photos: Jaunted, JetBlue]

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