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BetaBlue: It's one small step for in-flight Wi-Fi

A look back at JetBlue's inaugural e-mail and instant-messaging-equipped flight, and what the implications might be for the future.

The biggest problem with JetBlue's inaugural "BetaBlue" flight, equipped with Yahoo and BlackBerry e-mail and instant messaging, was the fact that there aren't power outlets on board the aircraft.

Sure, there are those little 110-volt things in each bathroom. But if you hog the airplane toilet so that you can give your laptop some juice, you're going to be the second most unpopular person on that flight. (The screaming kid in seat 15D still beats you.)

All joking aside, if in-flight Wi-Fi is going to take off, airplanes are going to need power outlets. Virgin America already has them, as do many pricier foreign airlines (some only in first class). So do high-end Amtrak trains, like the Acela Express line from Washington, D.C., to Boston. Sure, you might be able to make it from New York to Miami on your laptop battery, but New York to San Francisco just doesn't cut it, especially if you're not sure when you're going to be able to get to a power outlet on the ground.

As for the service itself, let's just say it's complicated. If BetaBlue's connection were my home ISP, I'd ask them to cancel my subscription; it was hardly ultra-reliable, and the instant-messaging application took quite a bit of time to boot up. But this was the first flight of a brand-new program, so I'll give JetBlue the benefit of the doubt here.

And JetBlue representatives, including a handful of engineers from its LiveTV division, which operates the Wi-Fi service, seemed quite thrilled when BetaBlue touched down. It didn't have to work perfectly. It just had to happen.

That's because the upside to BetaBlue (in addition to the fact that I was able to send IMs to every single one of my co-workers and say "Guess what?! I'm on a plane!!!") is that it was an actual realization of in-flight broadband access. In other words, JetBlue's extremely limited offering was potentially a kick in the pants to any other commercial carrier that's been wringing its figurative hands over a similar project. After the disaster that was Boeing's Connexion service, and the trepidation that followed, some airline needed to take that first step forward in order for Wi-Fi on planes to become a reality.

And there are going to be a ton of questions to answer. Will it be free? Ad-supported? Will there be a subscription charge? What if the guy in the seat next to you is looking at porn? Even worse, what if he plugs in a Skype headset and starts yakking away?

But at least the ball is rolling. TechCrunch reported last week that the Aircell service--which owns part of the same 800 MHz spectrum that hosts JetBlue's air-to-ground wireless--may soon make appearances on both Virgin America and American Airlines.

And additionally, I will remember BetaBlue fondly for this most paramount of reasons: it lifted me up from cold, rainy New York and planted me in the middle of a sunny, mild San Francisco day.