American Airlines and Virgin America promise in-flight broadband

American Airlines and Virgin America will be offering in-flight broadband on certain routes starting this spring.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read
Editor's note: This blog initially misidentified the provider of JetBlue's in-flight broadband service.

In-flight broadband is coming soon for travelers on some American Airlines and Virgin America flights. But will the companies hit the right price point to attract customers?

Aircell, a company that sells air-to-ground telecommunications equipment to airlines, said this week that its in-flight broadband system will be used on some Virgin America and American Airlines flights originating from San Francisco and Los Angeles to New York and Miami.

American Airlines will initially enable 15 of its 767s with broadband, and eventually it will offer Internet connectivity on 500 planes. Virgin plans to provide broadband on all its planes, according to a blog posted on GigaOm Tuesday.

The new service, called Gogo, will cost $12.95 for cross-country flights and $9.95 for flights lasting three hours or less.

Airlines have been talking about offering in-flight broadband for years. But so far the service hasn't really gotten off the ground (forgive the pun, I couldn't resist). Boeing was the first to come up with a service, called Connexion, which debuted in 2004 on a few international carriers including, Lufthansa, SAS, All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, and Singapore Airlines.

But the service was canceled in 2006 when the company was unable to find business among domestic airlines. A big problem with Connexion was that the entire system was bulky and weighed around 400 pounds, making it nearly impossible for it to be used on smaller domestic planes.

Other companies, such as Aircell, which uses a network of some 92 antenna towers across the country to transmit wireless signals to planes flying above, and Row44, which provides in-flight Internet service via satellite, have been pushing forward despite Connexion's failure. Both of these companies use Wi-Fi routers inside planes to provide broadband access to passengers.

Several carriers, including American Airlines, Virgin America, Alaska Airlines, and Southwest, have already said they would test broadband service on their planes using one of these two service providers. And in December, JetBlue demonstrated its in-flight broadband, delivered via a JetBlue subsidiary called LiveTV, on a flight from New York to San Francisco.

Finally, American Airlines and Virgin America are offering a commercial in-flight broadband service.

How much are people willing to pay?
Now, the true test will be whether passengers actually use the service. And that will depend on several factors. The first is price. How much are people willing to pay for in-flight broadband? Judging from the in-flight phone business, not that much.

In 2006, Verizon Communications exited the in-flight telephone service business, which it had inherited from GTE. The service had been operational for more than 20 years.

The reason Verizon got out of the in-flight phone business was simple. People weren't using the service because it was too expensive. Verizon charged non-Verizon customers $3.99 to connect domestic calls and $4.99 for each additional minute. International calls required a connection fee of $5.99 and $5.99 for each minute of calling.

Aircell's service is priced much more reasonably. At $10 and $13, the price point could appeal to business travelers. After all, many travelers pay Boingo $9.95 for Internet access in airports. If Aircell could strike a deal with Boingo or some other aggregator like T-Mobile, it could make the service even more compelling in terms of price.

The second major factor is ensuring the quality and speed of the service. If people are paying for Internet access, the network better work and it better work well. Unfortunately, I'm a little skeptical that the service on these planes will work as expected. My colleague Caroline McCarthy, who was onboard JetBlue's New York to San Francisco Wi-Fi test flight, wasn't impressed with the Internet service.

"If BetaBlue's connection were my home ISP, I'd ask them to cancel my subscription," she writes. "It was hardly ultra-reliable, and the instant-messaging application took quite a bit of time to boot up."

She had trouble connecting to the network and was only able to access "light" versions of services like Yahoo Mail.

I'm not sure if the issues she experienced were because JetBlue's LiveTV network was overloaded or because there was something wrong with the Wi-Fi router configuration on the plane. Or perhaps there wasn't enough broadband capacity being piped into the plane. All of these things could impact performance and could ultimately affect whether people are willing to pay the additional $10 or $13 to access the Internet on their flights.

So, I am interested to see the initial real-world user response to these services. But I have to admit that I secretly hope they are a disappointment. Even though I know having broadband access on a plane could make me much more productive when I travel between New York and San Francisco, where CNET is headquartered, airplanes have been the last bastion of solitude for me as a business traveler.

I don't have to check e-mail, file stories, or post blogs from 45,000 feet. I can kick back, watch a movie, read a magazine, or take a snooze. And of course, without broadband or cell phone service on planes, I also don't have to be subjected to listening to my seat-mate's annoying phone conversations.

Let me know what you think about in-flight broadband in the "TalkBack" section below this story. Is $13 too much for you to pay?