JetBlue to offer awesome in-flight broadband – eventually

JetBlue has made a big splash today with their announcement of an impending in-flight internet offering. The service, leveraging the Ka spectrum of satellite connectivity form provider ViaSat, will offer significant bandwidth and a broader coverage footprint than that of ATG provider Aircell, the company behind the gogo product. Company CEO Dave Barger sums it up nicely in the press release issued today with the announcement:

This system will be 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. In just the three years since we launched BetaBlue, the first commercial aircraft with simple messaging capability, technology has advanced by generations. Rather than invest in current technology, designed to transmit broadcast video and audio, we elected to partner with ViaSat to create broadband functionality worthy of today’s interactive personal technology needs.

Great news, right? Sortof. There’s a catch (actually a few).

674451208_dBNgv-M[1]The announcement is based on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) not a formal contract. Maybe that’s splitting hairs, but in the end it could make a difference. The MoU is non-binding and a full contract is expected by the end of the year.

Additionally, the technology is new – VERY new. So new that it doesn’t really exist in a form that can actually be installed and won’t for two years. The first trial installations are not expected to occur until mid-2012.

Not only are there many potential pitfalls along the way with getting the technology functional for commercial air service – and let’s not forget that getting a functional antenna was part of the death knell for the Kiteline service that JetBlue & LiveTV tried to bring to market previously – but VIaSat is also new in this market. The JetBlue MoU represents ViaSat’s entree into the commercial aircraft connectivity market.

And then there is the fact that between now and mid-to-late 2012 JetBlue will have no connectivity. While Delta (70+ seat aircraft only), Virgin America and AirTran will have fleet-wide coverage in span and other carriers will have something, JetBlue will have nothing. Having the best product is great but if it takes so long to deploy there is something lost in terms of customer value in the interim.

There is also the consideration of potential partner connectivity offerings. LiveTV was supposed to be providing connectivity options for Continental, too. Those plans went out the window when Kiteline died and Continental also delayed the gogo trial that was supposed to parallel the Kiteline effort. Can LiveTV convince the new world’s largest carrier to hold off on expanding the gogo deployment that they’ll have through the United Airlines p.s. offering for nearly three more years, offering nothing in the interim? Yes, the ViaSat/LiveTV Ka-band offering will be the best out there, but do customers today really need that or just something to get the job done?

There are no official details published by Aircell nor Row44 about the uptake on their products. No one knows just how compelling the in-flight connectivity availability is in terms of driving bookings to one airline versus another. So maybe it isn’t a big deal at all. But a two or three year wait to find out is something of an eternity in the airline industry.

More in-flight connectivity options is always a good thing. There is no denying that. Hopefully this one happens on schedule and isn’t too late to the market.

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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.