Friday, 22 July 2016 09:07

In-flight Wi-Fi promised for Australian skies, again, for 2017 Featured

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Virgin Australia has announced Wi-Fi for domestic Australian flights after a trial this year, but unlike Qantas which made a similar announcement in February, will Virgin’s Wi-Fi be free?

Back in February this year, Qantas announced that it would be bringing Wi-Fi to its domestic fleet of A330s and B737s ‘from early 2017’ after trials in late 2016.

Before we get to Virgin Australia’s still largely vague announcement, here’s what Qantas has promised, which does sound quite spectacularly fast, with speeds that sound like they might exceed some people’s fixed ADSL connections.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said it would use ViaSat’s services to connect to the NBN Co’s Sky Muster satellite, and that it would be offering Wi-Fi to passengers free of charge.

Importantly, Joyce stated: “This service will give Qantas customers download speeds in the air similar to what they’re used to on the ground.

“You won’t be limited to checking your email or Facebook – it’s going to be about watching the football live, streaming your favourite TV show or movie, catching up on the latest YouTube videos, or shopping online.

“This kind of inflight connectivity would also open up a lot of potential to improve in-flight entertainment, which we’re constantly looking to enhance.

“As a premium carrier, delivering value for money to our customers is extremely important to us. That’s why we’ll be offering access to wi-fi for free, on top of all the other things that are included when you fly Qantas.”

Meanwhile ViaSat Chairman and CEO Mark Dankbert explained they already serve close to 500 US commercial aircraft, and boldly stated:

“We connect more passengers per flight with higher speeds and more bandwidth per passenger than any other service – reaching speeds up to 20 Mbps per person and enough total bandwidth to support virtually any activity including streaming live or on-demand video and music.

“Our experience is proven on 1,500 flights daily, with as many as 148 simultaneous active devices on any given flight and with many of those devices using streaming media.”

The big question is whether this is what passengers will truly experience.

Plenty more below, please read on!

Aussie wi fi

Crikey writer Ben Sandilands said in his excellent article on the Virgin Australia Wi-Fi announcement that speed would be a real issue.

He stated that: “the critical issue is just how useful those connections will be when the bandwidth an airliner can access is divided by 300 or more passengers. It’s immensely disappointing to wait for 20 to 40 minutes for a page to load on an Emirates or Etihad flight when trying to post to a deadline, or just catch up with news or email.

“No-one expects 4G network speeds while flying, but the speed to user has to be practicable. As yet, neither Virgin nor Qantas is telling their customers what they will really get.”

Of course, Sandilands is wrong about Qantas, as the airline has made it quite clear in its media release that people would get very fast speeds indeed. Sandilands says no-one expects 4G, but Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said above: “This service will give Qantas customers download speeds in the air similar to what they’re used to on the ground.”

So, what is Virgin Australia promising?

Well, according to The Australian, Virgin will equip its domestic Boeing 737-800 and Airbus A330 fleet, and its international Boeing 777-300ERs with Wi-Fi from mid 2017.

That sounds like it will be later than Qantas. Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti didn’t say much about who his Wi-Fi partner would be, and while he said it would be for more than just email and social media, there is the chance of ‘partnerships’ with content providers to have TV shows and movies streamed to passengers.

Of course, video content is already being streamed on Virgin flights, so that’s nothing new - it is the ability to be able to stream whatever you want on a flight that is paramount.

After all, people know about a thing called Netflix, or Presto and Stan in Australia - even Foxtel Go and Foxtel Play - and they want to be able to watch those shows if they ate able to.

Virgin Australia’s launch of domestic and international Wi-Fi happened at a Los Angeles launch, which also focused on Virgin Australia’s new business class suites, which are in a friendlier configuration than that of Qantas.

Theres also the question of cost. Qantas Wi-Fi will be free. Virgin hasn’t said what its price would be, if anything, but that there was more than one way for a service to be paid for, potentially hinting that it would be paid for by partners rather than passengers.

Borghetti did tell The Australian that he and his team had been working on inflight Wi-Fi for nearly two years.

Australian carriers are late to the game with inflight Wi-Fi, with such services available internationally for at least a decade if not longer.

So, while some will rue the day getting on a plane meant you could truly switch off, being connected literally everywhere is finally becoming a reality for those who want it.

My only disappointment is that we’re living in a pre-space flight era for everyday people. Perhaps in 50 years we’ll be talking about how we now have space-based Internet for those travelling to be tourists on the moon.

And perhaps in 150 or 250 years we’ll be talking about interstellar Internet.

But until then, Australians are still waiting for inflight Internet dreams to come true, with 2017 the seeming definite date for the end of the wait.

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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