WAEA2008: JetBlue to offer fleet-wide connectivity by end of 2009

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JetBlue Airways intends to offer passengers free connectivity throughout its fleet by the end of next year after trialing its "BetaBlue" service on a single Airbus A320 since December 2007.

Carrier CEO Dave Barger unveiled those plans today during the World Airline Entertainment Association annual convention in Long Beach, California.

Barger explains that with more than 100,000 messages sent on Wi-fi enabled laptops and Blackberries so far with "limited technical issues" the carrier now has the confidence to say "yes this is a natural space for JetBlue". JetBlue has been using the Verizon Airfone network to test connectivity following a deal by its LiveTV subsidiary to purchase the network that includes 100 air-to-ground towers in the USA that support airborne communication services for more than 2,400 Magnastar customers in the general aviation market.

Barger expects LiveTV to close on the Airfone deal by yearend.

LiveTV also owns a 1MHz narrowband license following the auction of 4MHz spectrum of an 800MHz band allocated to air-to-ground services in 2006.

While Barger is stressing that JetBlue will offer connectivity to passengers free of charge, he also says the carrier is waiting to see "what happens with Aircell, Row 44 and OnAir", in terms of passenger behavior. If customers pay $10-$12, or the technology evolves to lower those prices "over time we'd like to be there as well".

American Airlines is currently testing Aircell's air-to-ground communications system dubbed Gogo on its transcontinental fleet of 15 Boeing 767-200s, and is charging $12.95 for the service.

For the initial phase of its connectivity testing, JetBlue through sponsorship deals with Yahoo and Blackberry manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM) offered Yahoo mail messaging and email through RIM PDAs.

The second phase that started in March of this year featured an ability for passenger to shop on Amazon.com and the expansion of messaging to Gmail, Hotmail, Windows Live Mail and AOL Mail.

With the 1 MHz narrowband purchased by LiveTV, JetBlue at the time it launched connectivity testing said it had the bandwidth capacity to support its customers.

Barger says that JetBlue "has not been able to overload the system", and essentially the capability most passengers prefer is the ability to send quick messages. The CEO does not seem convinced that passengers would take advantage of capabilities such as streaming video available through a higher bandwidth offering.

There are challenges in JetBlue's current offerings as the Airfone network is on available in the contiguous 48 US states, says Barger, who notes JetBlue today is limited in offering a seamless product in terms of connectivity on flights to the Caribbean and Mexico.

Barger is indicating an interest in connectivity offerings from other providers, noting the carrier wanted to fly Aircell "soon."