On a recent flight from JFK to Austin, JetBlue finally decided to flip the switch on Fly-Fi, giving passengers an early look at the airline's next generation in flight Wi-Fi for the first time, writes Engadget's Zach Honig.
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.
I had booked my return to New York on the same aircraft and, following a 20 minute pitstop at Austin, 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 resolved, making our three hour hop back to Kennedy Airport much more pleasant.
The experience was completely different, although we were offline for 30 minutes or so as we passed over Louisiana and Mississippi. Ultimately, Fly-Fi, which uses 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 12Mbit/s per passenger 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 the 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/hr, but can be 'paused' to maximise 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 optimising 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 1Mbit/s to 30Mbit/s (mostly around 15Mbit/s), while upload bandwidth hovered around 0.5Mbit/s.
ViaSat limits the uplink from each plane in order to maximise 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 800ms ping is to be expected. Upload speeds are unlikely to improve (so save those large file transfers for the ground), but that 12Mbit/seat figure we've heard seems reasonable with only a few dozen passengers online (and even fewer streaming HD video).
Following the hiccups during that first ever Fly-Fi flight, I was a bit concerned about the programme'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 selected 737s from United. For now, you'll only find the service on two of JetBlue's A320s. The airline may eventually identify flights in advance and all A320s should be online by mid 2014.
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