- Virgin Australia partners with Gogo, Optus on inflight WiFi
- 2Ku satellite speeds of 70Mbps per aircraft
- Sydney-Melbourne-Brisbane routes first for the satellite service
Virgin Australia is set for some sky-high WiFi, with its inflight Internet service launching from April on flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
The announcement comes as Qantas readies a public trial of its own Qantas WiFi service for early April, after delaying this week’s kick-off to technical issues, ahead of a fleet-wide rollout beginning in the second half of the year.
Virgin will offer the service for free during an initial three-month testing period on a single Boeing 737-800 aircraft (registration VH-YIG, for those interested) from mid-April.
A rollout to the rest of the Boeing 737, Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 fleet will begin in the second half of the year and carry through to mid-2018.
Virgin’s inflight Internet service will be powered by the fourth-generation Optus D2 satellite launched in 2007 for domestic and trans-Tasman flights, with Intelsat and SES for international flights to Asia and the USA.
Its technology partner Gogo is best known for its air-to-ground network in the USA but also provides satellite WiFi to airlines including Delta, JAL and from this year, British Airways.
Virgin’s fleet will be fitted with Gogo’s proprietary 2Ku technology which uses two flat-dish satellite antennae – one for uploads and one for downloads – to achieve speeds of up to 70Mbps per aircraft.
Sharing your sky-high WiFi
That high-speed channel will however be split between every connected device on the plane, in the same way that a fast home Internet connection has to be shared between the whole family.
As a result, if 20 passengers were online at the same time, that 70Mbps signal could come out to a modest 3.5Mbps for each passenger – not exactly greased lightning, but sufficient to stream Netflix in standard definition onto your smartphone, tablet or laptop.
However, speeds will dynamically scale to suit each person’s usage. Somebody reading a website or their email will have their connection temporarily idled so that additional speed can be handed to another passenger watching streaming video or downloading a large email attachment.
Load balancing will also allow bandwidth to be diverted away from a single user who is identified as hogging the system through heavy downloading, for example.
In practice, then, actual speeds achieved will vary depending on how many people are connected during the flight and what’s they’re doing online at any time.
By comparison, the Qantas WiFi system is claimed to deliver a faster 7-12Mbps per passenger.
This is due to its use of the NBN Sky Muster satellites which operate on the higher-capacity Ka band instead of the more cluttered Ku band of the Optus birds, as well as a channeling its broadband signals into a hundred tight-focus spot beams rather than a series of larger footprints.
Gogo says that ‘next-generation satellites’ with superior beaming techniques, coupled to improvements to its modems, will push peak capacity beyond 200Mbps per aircraft.
Virgin Australia Airlines Group CEO John Thomas told Australian Business Traveller that in choosing the Optus Ku band satellite rather than the faster Sky Muster system "our decision-making process was not to get carried away by speeds, but what solution gives us and our customers the most reliable and most proven technology?"
"The Optus satellite spectrum has been going for 10 years now and Gogo has over 350 aircraft across its satellite network, with 150 aircraft already operating the 2Ku technology we are going to us."
Pricing still to be determined
Virgin hasn’t revealed if the service will remain free after the trial period, but is believed to be leaning towards letting travellers choose between two levels of service: a Basic connection suitable for Web browsing, email and social media, and a High Speed pipeline for streaming video from the likes of Netflix.
In a survey sent to selected Virgin Australia passengers earlier this week, Virgin pitched a Basic connection at between $8 and $14 per flight, with the High Speed alternative at $15 to $21 per flight.
However, Virgin also allowed that “on some flights the price could be free, or the first 30 minutes could be free.”
"Pricing is part of the feedback we want to get during the trial," Thomas explains.
"But based on my experience with US airlines, I don't think it will be a simple thing. The pushback a lot of people had in the US was over a fixed fee for a flight."
"People asked, why pay $15 if I'm only texting" Thomas says. "I imagine what we'll see will be something (similar) for streaming videos, using email and texting."
In the US Gogo also offers a flat-fee monthly pass for all flights on an airline, which could also join Virgin's product line-up.
Thomas added that Internet access could be offered free to business class passengers and Velocity Platinum frequent flyers.
Content partnerships with Netflix, Stan and Pandora will see those services take pride of place on the inflight portal, with passengers offered three months of free access to Netflix, Stan and Pandora Plus.
Voice apps such as Skype and FaceTime will be blocked during the trial, along with BitTorrent download sites.
PREVIOUS | Virgin Australia will flick the switch on sky-high WiFi next year, giving passengers on its domestic and international flights the ability to stay connected above the clouds.
Virgin’s domestic Boeing 737-800 and Airbus A330 jets, as well as its international Boeing 777-300ERs, will be equipped with satellite Internet from mid-2017.
The fleet-wide upgrade is expected to take "a couple of years", Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti told Australian Business Traveller during a media event in Los Angeles.
But it'll be well worth the wait, he attests.
“We are determined to give Virgin Australia customers the best possible combined connectivity and entertainment experience," Borghetti says.
He promises “what we think will be one of the world’s leading connectivity and entertainment networks, and we will work with strategic partners to offer our guests a truly personalised experience.”
The airline has not revealed how much passengers will pay for the service, although Qantas has notably promised free Internet on domestic flights next year.
While Borghetti is keeping his powder dry on the details, when asked if Virgin's service would also be free, he would say only that "our model is much more sophisticated than a simple yes or no (to that question)... but we have a very innovative model that were working on".
However, the CEO did allow that "we will not turn on voice technology" such as Skype and FaceTime.
David Flynn travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of Virgin Australia
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