Fleet-wide wifi coming to United

There was plenty of news in this morning’s quarterly earnings call for United Airlines. As per usual, most of it was focused on the financial numbers but there were a few interesting bits that came out which are actually of interest to passengers rather than investors. Wedged between a screed about potential new taxes on the industry and mention of aircraft retirements was a very simple statement by CEO Jeff Smisek: Wifi is coming to the mainline fleet.

I was actually caught a bit off-guard by the comment and haven’t seen the transcript yet to confirm if he qualified that statement with the word "domestic" but apparently that doesn’t matter much as rumors surrounding the announcement suggest that it quite likely has potential to be a global deployment. That’s HUGE.

Subsidiary Continental has been dancing with LiveTV for a few years now, trying to get some in-flight internet into service from the provider. LiveTV hasn’t been able to deliver, however, and that’s been quite frustrating. The recent successful launch of ViaSat-1 will allow LiveTV to get their service up and running next year but apparently that’s not sufficient for United; they’re moving on. At least for part of the fleet. Apparently the new announcement might only be for the subsidiary United portion of the fleet, with LiveTV keeping the Continental portion.

The winner of the contract is apparently Panasonic Systems according to Runway Girl, who has great sources for this type of information. Panasonic currently supports in-flight wifi via a Ku-band satellite network. This is slower than the Ka-band service that LiveTV/ViaSat are launching but it is also available today. And Panasonic has announced that they will have a combination Ku/Ka antenna available reasonably soon which should allow the product to scale up as the network options become available. Oh, and Panasonic has a partnership with ViaSat similar to LiveTV so they might even end up using the same satellite but via a different provider.

Definitely a huge development in this space with lots more details to come.

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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.


  1. I strongly hope that UA will have plans in place to allow monthly subscribers to use both systems under one account with one bill. It will royally suck if I have to pay $40 a month to two different providers. One thing I love about Gogo is that we can pay $40 a month and use it on any Gogo equipped aircraft, regardless of what airline we are flying on.

    So, this may be great news, but could be a total failure for frequent business travelers [at least for me] if they do not somehow centralize our accounts to let us use the service on PMUA/PMCO birds under one account with one monthly bill of $40-50. I ain’t paying Panasonic $40 a month and LiveTV another $40 a month.

  2. From ViaSat:



    Seems that ViaSat launch was for both JetBlue and United – the ViaSat press release notes that the spot beam is indeed a KA signal, for US and Hawaii coverage, but it also does mention something about “The complete system also includes the ViaSat SurfBeam® 2 ground system, already delivering high-speed broadband to Europe via Eutelsat’s KA-SAT.”

    So, maybe European coverage along with mainland US and Hawaii?

  3. I am a bit disappointed they didn’t go with GoGo, as the latency on the Satellite-based systems really sucks. GoGo’s latency is roughly on-par with an EVDO (think Verizon/Sprint 3G) in the US.

    1. @unavaca – The latency can be a problem, though for most applications it isn’t; jitter and bandwidth are usually more of an issue. And the new Ka satellite systems have a ton of bandwidth. Way more than the gogo solutions. Even Aircell/gogo is moving towards satellite-based offerings in some areas.

      @Erndog – Yes, the ViaSat launch was for Ka but it isn’t 100% clear whether Panasonic has contracted with them or not. As for broader coverage than just the domestic US, the Panasonic offering already is in use by Lufthansa for their trans-Atlantic flights so that’s not too hard to see integrating nicely should the airline choose to equip that part of the fleet.

      @Golfingboy – The billing is just one of several things that could be annoying about a split deployment. Then again, they could just make it free for customers to get around that problem. 😀

  4. @Seth — for my applications (ssh sessions for work), the satellite service is practically a non-starter 🙁 VoIP is pretty much impossible, too.

    1. I’m surprised that SSH gives you that much trouble with the latency; I’ve not had that problem. And I’m not too upset about VoIP not working well. Sitting next to some folks on a VX flight who were video chatting the entire flight, making bandwidth suck for the rest of us and doing it without headphones. Plus, I’ve had some pretty bad latency connections for VoIP and, other than the delay, was reasonably satisfied with the quality. Jitter is what really kills you on those.

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