ViaSat assures Ka connectivity is coming to JetBlue, United-Continental next year

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ViaSat is hitting back at claims that superfast Ka-band satellite-based in-flight connectivity - the likes of which is to be offered across JetBlue Airways' fleet and on some 200 United-Continental domestic aircraft - will not be a realistic option in the US until 2015.

The claims are "not correct", says ViaSat strategy director Bill Sullivan. "We already have contiguous coverage over the United States today with our WildBlue Ka satellite. The ViaSat-1 satellite is to launch in July. We'll certainly launch this summer and that will be in place well before we have aircraft flying in the summer of next year.

"ViaSat-1 coverage will basically overlap a large portion of WildBlue coverage and will add a huge amount of capacity, which lowers the cost per megabyte. Our system is basically going to utilize all of our satellites, ViaSat-1, WildBlue and Anik-F2, a Ka band satellite very similar to WildBlue, which shares the same orbital slot."

Last month Aircell and Row 44 highlighted doubts that Ka would be ready before 2015, when Inmarsat is expected to offer a global Ka solution. Aircell's air-to-ground (ATG)-based high-speed Internet solution Gogo has been fitted to myriad aircraft flying in the USA, while rival Row 44 is bringing Ku-band satellite-supported connectivity to Southwest Airlines' fleet. Both firms would compete with ViaSat and JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV, which have teamed to bring Ka connectivity to JetBlue and United-Continental starting next year.

Aircell president and CEO Michael Small said the firm has "questions about the satellite coverage for large portions of the United States west of the Mississippi River" based on its knowledge of what traffic patterns and usage will be in the US domestic market.

"The technology was originally designed for terrestrial use that focused mainly on the coasts. This leaves a gap in coverage in the Midwest. Right now, it is unclear as to how that problem is going to be solved in the near to midterm," said Small.

In a rare show of solidarity Row 44 agreed with Aircell's assessment of the timeline for Ka-band connectivity in the US. In an interview with the Airline Passenger Experience Association's APEXnews Digest, Row 44 chief commercial officer Howard Lefkowitz said: "Ka-band technology is simply too far off for anyone to know when it will be ready for in-flight broadband - although in the office pool, I have November 2015. Any market solution that begins with, 'First, we have to launch a satellite into space,' is going to take time."

He added: "Today Ka-band technology is simply not commercially viable. It's not ready. From an airline-solution perspective, it's not real. There are more questions than answers. Ka right now offers nowhere near the degree of coverage necessary to make it viable for our industry's purposes. Plus, terminal equipment is a long way from being dependable enough or commercially acceptable for in-flight passenger broadband."

Sullivan said ViaSat finds such comments "really odd", adding: I don't know where the information came from or what those folks might have been thinking. It's very,very different from the reality based on our programme and our work with our customers."

He points out that ViaSat has "a viable service operating for residential customers so the notion that Ka band as a service providing resource is not viable for some time is not correct. What is going to take up some additional time is having the airborne equipment ready but that is still on track.

"JetBlue will be launch customer, in August to September of next year and that is still on track, and as you know United-Continental's fleet will be rolling out more or less concurrently, and that's all on track. We're excited that next summer aircraft will be flying with the service. The plan is to begin an aggressive rollout."