ViaSat Exec Talks About Fly-Fi Feedback and Next Steps

In Flight Connectivity, Fly-Fi

Don Buchman, director of Mobile broadband at ViaSat. Photo: ViaSat

[Via Satellite 12-20-13] In-flight connectivity options are steadily becoming a must-have for airlines. ViaSat has already begun to build off the feedback received for its satellite-based Fly-Fi Internet service, especially after the FAA ruled that passengers can use personal electronic devices from gate-to-gate. The company challenged flyers to test its new connectivity service, and many accepted.

“[Feedback has] been pretty positive,” Don Buchman, director of mobile broadband at ViaSat, told Via Satellite. “The system is behaving as it’s designed and as we expected it to; we had pretty high confidence. The market seems to understand what the speed means and so the next question is what does it mean at scale, not just one guy on a plane or one plane full of people, but an entire fleet of airlines, and for all the people on those flights to get the same results.”

Fly-Fi is expected to support 50 to 70 personal devices simultaneously at 12 Mbps or more, rapidly expanding access to online content while flying. “We’re seeing half to three quarters of a flight using their devices in flight,” said Buchman. “It’s encouraging to see what you would expect to be natural demand start to take root.”

While most responded positively to the new service, a criticism that arose was slow service during the first few minutes of flight. “We still have some corners to round out,” said Buchman. “I think at the beginning, JetBlue’s portal may have been getting a little congested. When you have 60 people ready to go and they hit the network, you hit the portal on an aircraft and that slowness might have been the queuing of orders to get online. We’re definitely rounding out the corners on these things, but those are easy things to get figured out.”

The upcoming ViaSat 2 satellite is the company’s solution to reach these goals. The new satellite, scheduled to launch in 2016, will increase the coverage area by seven times and essentially double the bandwidth. “You can choose to give one person more at the same cost, or serve many more people marginally more, or anything in between. We plan to do both,” said Buchman. “That’s essentially where the market is going. More people want to be connected and when they are connected they want more bandwidth. Those are the two trends that ViaSat 2 will capitalize on.”

When asked about feedback from competitors, speed was the main topic of interest. “Gogo was saying that our return link was too slow and that that’s the problem with satellite … because they use air-to-ground on their return links,” said Buchman. “The idea of satellite return link being slow is on contrast to one of the quickly adopted use cases of ViaSat 1, which is live HD video contribution from the field via small portable terminals. So the notion that our return links are a limiter is pretty far from reality.”

JetBlue turbineFly-Fi will expand into South America with the addition of ViaSat 2. Currently the service relies on ViaSat 1 and WildBlue 1 to cover North America, but ViaSat wants the service to accompany more of JetBlue’s popular international destinations.

“JetBlue does a lot of flights into South America; into the northern rim of South America and the Caribbean … ViaSat 2 is designed to cover those routes from Canada and the Northern Atlantic Ridge out to Europe. We’ve also pushed south to the Northern Rim of South America so the Bogota routes and all the Caribbean, the Yucatan Peninsula and the islands in the Caribbean, will be covered by ViaSat 2, which launches in 2016, ” Buchman said.

Whether or not Fly-Fi will remain a free service by that time is not known. At present, the service is free until June 2014. There is also a premium option where passengers can pay to access a higher quality service. ViaSat was not able to say what will happen after mid-2014. “That’s really JetBlue’s call,” said Buchman. “We set up our relationship to give them that flexibility.”

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