JetBlue vows to offer best in-flight broadband under ViaSat deal

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Vowing to offer the industry's "best in-flight broadband" in the commercial sector, JetBlue Airways has stuck a deal with ViaSat that will see the carrier bring high-speed Ka-band satellite-based in-flight connectivity to its entire 160-strong aircraft fleet.

Under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two parties, ViaSat will provide Ka-band antenna components and 'SurfBeam2' modems for installation on JetBlue's Airbus A320 and Embraer 190 aircraft along with two-way transmission bandwidth services using the WildBlue-1 and high-capacity ViaSat-1 satellites.

JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV, which supplies live television across JetBlue's fleet, will manage the integration of the ViaSat broadband and related components onboard the aircraft, leading the certification process and handling the installations. LiveTV will also bring Wi-Fi enabled services into the overall cabin experience, says JetBlue.

"This system will be designed for the 21st century, not just for today's personal connectivity needs, but with the bandwidth to expand to meet tomorrow's needs as well," says JetBlue CEO Dave Barger.

"In just the three years since we launched BetaBlue, the first commercial aircraft with simple messaging capability, technology has advanced by generations. Rather than invest in current technology, designed to transmit broadcast video and audio, we elected to partner with ViaSat to create broadband functionality worthy of today's interactive personal technology needs."

The MOU, once signed, will represent a veritable coup for ViaSat, which has fought to enter the commercial market for years. It could also herald a new era for Ka-band satellite-based connectivity, which is touted by operators as surpassing Ku-band connectivity in speed and cost efficiency.

"JetBlue is the perfect partner to introduce our next generation ViaSat-1 broadband network to the commercial aviation market," says ViaSat chairman and CEO Mark Dankberg.

"JetBlue is famous for customer service and in-flight entertainment. The breakthrough bandwidth economics of ViaSat-1 extends the passenger internet experience beyond just e-mail and web pages and creates a world of possibilities for personalized broadband entertainment. This is exactly the type of application and user experience that we believe will help transform the satellite broadband industry."

Because JetBlue's Ka-band product will be the first of its kind for commercial aviation, the system "must be tested, and certificated by the Federal Aviation Administration, prior to installation fleet-wide", notes JetBlue, which says it expects first installations to occur by mid-2012.

Further, ViaSat and LiveTV "intend to partner to bring the same advance Ka-band satellite broadband services to the airline industry, including to LiveTV's existing customer base of airlines", adds the New York-based airline.

Earlier in the decade Connexion by Boeing offered a Ku-band satellite-based service, but it notoriously shuttered operations in late 2006. Since that time, two firms - Panasonic Avionics and Row 44 - have emerged to fill the void left by Connexion. Panasonic is testing its Ku system on aircraft operated by Lufthansa and expects to launch revenue service soon. Row 44 is in the process of bringing its Ku-band system to Southwest Airlines' entire fleet. Over a dozen aircraft are already fitted with Row 44, but Southwest expects 60 aircraft to be installed by year-end.

Panasonic and Row 44 have also been studying and discussing upgrade paths to Ka, however.

JetBlue and ViaSat, meanwhile, say they expect to sign a definitive agreement before the end of this calendar year.