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JetBlue to start testing in-flight e-mail, IM next week

The low-cost carrier will be the first domestic airline to offer a wireless service on board when it tests out Yahoo e-mail and IM, as well as BlackBerry access, next Tuesday.

If there were snakes on this plane, you could IM your friends and tell them.

Low-cost airline JetBlue has equipped one of its Airbus A320 planes with an onboard wireless network and has forged partnerships with Yahoo and BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion to give passengers access to the companies' e-mail and instant messaging functions while in the air. The airline considers the plane, nicknamed "BetaBlue," to be an early-stage test as the company explores expanding in-flight communication options.


Passengers won't be able to surf the full Web. But if they bring Wi-Fi-equipped laptops along, they can access lightweight versions of Yahoo e-mail and instant messaging services; BlackBerry owners who have Wi-Fi-enabled handsets (the BlackBerry 8820 and BlackBerry Curve 8320) will be able to access their personal and corporate e-mail. BlackBerry models that have only cellular connections rather than Wi-Fi won't be compatible--the Federal Communications Commission still has a ban on cellular service in-flight.

The plane will take its inaugural flight on Tuesday morning, making the cross-country trip from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to San Francisco International Airport. After that, "BetaBlue" will be added to JetBlue's regular flight lineup; a company representative told CNET that there will be no way to specifically request the messaging-equipped plane, nor will any additional fee be charged for the service.

It's been known for well over a year that JetBlue had been planning some sort of in-flight wireless initiative. LiveTV, a division of the airline, was awarded a 1MHz air-to-ground wireless license from the FCC in June 2006, following an intense bidding war. After 120 bids, LiveTV paid $7 million for the license, which offers full coverage of the continental U.S. above 10,000 feet. Another company, AirCell, obtained a 3MHz license for $31.3 million in the same FCC auction.

Earlier this year, JetBlue representatives hinted that they were interested in exploring options for in-flight text messaging--but that would require a relaxation of the FCC's stringent regulations.

As the major players in the airline industry compete with one another in an increasingly tech-savvy world, carriers have touted in-flight tech innovations like satellite TV service and electrical power connections. JetBlue already offers DirecTV service, as well as XM satellite radio on some of its newer planes. When Virgin America first took off in August, geeks drooled over the USB and power connections, MP3 library, and a messaging service that lets lonely passengers strike up conversations with fellow travelers on the same plane.

But when it comes to communication services (Virgin America's intra-plane messaging aside), there have been some major momentum issues. Cell phone use on planes is still a contentious topic, but it's nevertheless likely imminent on some foreign carriers and some wireless companies see it as a potential source of profit.

Broadband Internet is a different story. Connexion, a paid in-flight broadband service from Boeing, was used by a number of foreign airlines, like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, before it was officially shut down at the end of 2006. There's been no word from Panasonic recently on a rumored plan to succeed where Connexion had failed.

And when BetaBlue takes off on Tuesday, it will make the Forest Hills, N.Y.-based JetBlue the first domestic airline carrier to offer any kind of wireless service in the air. Virgin America's planes have Ethernet ports at each seat, but they remain inactive.

JetBlue representatives said that if BetaBlue proves successful, expansions to the program will become evident over the next year. This would possibly include either installing the Yahoo and RIM services on other planes, or expanding the wireless offerings.