A couple of weeks ago, I flew a 17-hour flight from New York to Bangkok. I had books, movies, music, and three horrific vegetarian meals. I also had a laptop, but no way to connect to the Net.
Getting online onboard has been promised for years—remember the now-defunct Connexxion by Boeing and Tenzing services? Tomorrow, JetBlue Airways will attempt to rekindle in-flight connectivity when it launches a free e-mail service on one of its planes.
The JetBlue service, which will enable passengers to connect via onboard Wi-Fi, will only allow connections to Yahoo e-mail and IM accounts. Owners of two BlackBerry models (the 8820 and 8320) will also be able to use the service. But the technology will not allow attachments or general Web browsing. And that makes it a pretty tentative launch, but JetBlue is playing it smart by not charging for the service. No one wants to pay for a service that doesn’t work—or doesn’t work well.
The quasi-net service will be provided by LiveTV, a JetBlue subsidiary, that uses an air-to-ground cellular service to grab a 1Mhz line of bandwidth. It will be available only after the Airbus A320 reaches cruising altitude and will work only in the continental United States (because the technology relies on a hand-off from one cell ground station to the next). The cell hand-off approach presents lots of possibilities for dropped signals, and early reports indicate that the performance is pretty choppy.
JetBlue plans to expand the service throughout its network in 2008. Other airlines, including American Airlines, Virgin America, and Alaska Airlines, have also announced plans to launch Web access in next year, but will probably charge roughly $10 a flight. It's not free, but it's a better deal than two drinks.