Riding on BetaBlue – the other in-flight Internet option

There are three main players in in-flight internet service for US-based carriers.  Aircell’s gogo service is – by far – the most dominant, with more carriers signed on as partners and more planes in service than anyone else.  Then there is Row44 which has made significant progress over the past couple months, signing up two carriers (Southwest and Alaska Airlines) for fleet-wide deployment and gaining approval from the feds to operate the service.

And then there is the dark horse in the race: LiveTV.  Known most for being the provider of jetBlue’s in-flight DirecTV service, LiveTV also owns a bit of radio spectrum that permits them to operate terrestrial internet services in the United States.  They’ve been developing this service under the name Kiteline for a while now, including deployment on a jetBlue plane well over a year ago.  Yet despite their position as the first to actually have in-flight connectivity available, they lag terribly far behind the other two in terms of deployment or plans for such.

The good news is that they have expectations of a revised product ready for deployment in late 2009, with Continental suggesting that they will put the service on about 30 planes in early 2010 for trials.  And the service is expected to remain free.  The bad news is that it is not a full internet solution.  It is limited pretty much to only email, and specific service providers at that.  There are a couple other bits – Yahoo! messenger and an Amazon shopping portal – but neither is particularly compelling.

Because jetBlue has only the one plane flying around with the service it has been difficult for me to get an opportunity to try it out.  Fortunately – and completely by luck – I happened to have that plane for a couple flights this past weekend and I was finally able to see what all the fuss was about.  I’ve long claimed that users will more readily adopt free crappy service over paid good service and this was finally a chance to test the former.

Connecting was pretty simple.  Simply pick the WiFi network:

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Watch an ad:

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And then pick the service you want to connect to.

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I was able to load my Gmail for Domains account no problem and my Outlook 2007 client actually connected to the Exchange server via Outlook Anywhere (aka RPC over HTTPS in Outlook 2003) without any extra effort.  I was also able to load Outlook Web Access even though that isn’t one of the listed providers.

Fullscreen capture 1032009 50714 PMPerformance was reasonable, though not particularly speedy.  I was able to email a post to my blog which was nice but no direct access to the other interfaces that it exposes.  No twitter.  No Skype.  No Gmail chat.  No AIM.  Pretty much nothing else.  Oh, there was the Amazon interface but I really have no idea why that is being offered.  I’m guessing that it is because Amazon paid for the placement.  There isn’t much justification otherwise.

The other issue I was faced with is that the flight I had the plane on was headed to Puerto Rico, well away from the mainland of the United States.  And since the service is terrestrial that meant that about 30 minutes into the flight connectivity dropped.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing in this particular case since it was a redeye flight and I really needed to sleep.  But it isn’t great for jetBlue and their ever expanding Caribbean and Latin America route networks.  They are making great progress with their satellite-based service as well if you believe the PR so perhaps a hybrid solution will be out soon enough.  But in the mean time the service area is definitely limited, just like the gogo service.

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Ultimately I find myself struggling between the choice of a free limited-access service or a paid service providing reasonably full connectivity.  I don’t particularly like any of the pricing plans that gogo has so I can’t imagine paying for them frequently (fortunately not an issue right now thanks to the plethora of coupon codes out there).  But the Kiteline service really is very limited.  Sure, I could get some work emails sent out, but there isn’t much available on the leisure side of the equation.  Perhaps the folks at LiveTV can implement access to WAP interfaces of various sites at minimum to open up more content.  Or really just about anything else.  But as it stands right now the service isn’t really compelling enough for me to see it driving bookings or revenue.  There is also the chance that Row44 and Southwest figure out how to be solvent using a free to the consumer with way more content then the Kiteline’s selling point of being free loses a lot of its luster.

Of course, the service that is coming out later this year is supposed to be better than the current system so maybe there will be more content available by the time Continental gets it in their planes (and jetBlue, if they decide to deploy it fleet-wide).  If not, they’re likely going to have a lot of unsatisfied customers.  Maybe that’s why jetBlue hasn’t gone beyond the single plane deployment. There’s also the Ka-band satellite service that LiveTV is talking about getting up and running in the coming year which should allow them to open things up for more content and bandwidth.  But no guarantees that will be free.

In-flight internet is an industry that is still searching for a lot of things, from profit to customers.  LiveTV and Kiteline as the third entrant is certainly going to be a player once they can get some systems deployed, but unless they improve the offering pretty significantly from what they’ve got on BetaBlue today I can’t see them as being particularly successful with it.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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