Virgin Australia to trial free inflight Internet from April

By David Flynn, March 30 2017

  • Virgin Australia partners with Gogo, Optus on inflight WiFi
  • 2Ku satellite speeds of 70Mbps per aircraft
  • Sydney-Melbourne-Brisbane routes first for the satellite service

Virgin Australia is set for some sky-high WiFi, with its inflight Internet service launching from April on flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

The announcement comes as Qantas readies a public trial of its own Qantas WiFi service for early April, after delaying this week’s kick-off to technical issues, ahead of a fleet-wide rollout beginning in the second half of the year.

Virgin will offer the service for free during an initial three-month testing period on a single Boeing 737-800 aircraft (registration VH-YIG, for those interested) from mid-April.

A rollout to the rest of the Boeing 737, Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 fleet will begin in the second half of the year and carry through to mid-2018.

Virgin’s inflight Internet service will be powered by the fourth-generation Optus D2 satellite launched in 2007 for domestic and trans-Tasman flights, with Intelsat and SES for international flights to Asia and the USA.

Its technology partner Gogo is best known for its air-to-ground network in the USA but also provides satellite WiFi to airlines including Delta, JAL and from this year, British Airways.

Virgin’s fleet will be fitted with Gogo’s proprietary 2Ku technology which uses two flat-dish satellite antennae – one for uploads and one for downloads – to achieve speeds of up to 70Mbps per aircraft.

Sharing your sky-high WiFi

That high-speed channel will however be split between every connected device on the plane, in the same way that a fast home Internet connection has to be shared between the whole family. 

As a result, if 20 passengers were online at the same time, that 70Mbps signal could come out to a modest 3.5Mbps for each passenger – not exactly greased lightning, but sufficient to stream Netflix in standard definition onto your smartphone, tablet or laptop.

However, speeds will dynamically scale to suit each person’s usage. Somebody reading a website or their email will have their connection temporarily idled so that additional speed can be handed to another passenger watching streaming video or downloading a large email attachment.

Load balancing will also allow bandwidth to be diverted away from a single user who is identified as hogging the system through heavy downloading, for example.

In practice, then, actual speeds achieved will vary depending on how many people are connected during the flight and what’s they’re doing online at any time.

By comparison, the Qantas WiFi system is claimed to deliver a faster 7-12Mbps per passenger. 

This is due to its use of the NBN Sky Muster satellites which operate on the higher-capacity Ka band instead of the more cluttered Ku band of the Optus birds, as well as a channeling its broadband signals into a hundred tight-focus spot beams rather than a series of larger footprints.

Gogo says that ‘next-generation satellites’ with superior beaming techniques, coupled to improvements to its modems, will push peak capacity beyond 200Mbps per aircraft.

Virgin Australia Airlines Group CEO John Thomas told Australian Business Traveller that in choosing the Optus Ku band satellite rather than the faster Sky Muster system "our decision-making process was not to get carried away by speeds, but what solution gives us and our customers the most reliable and most proven technology?"

"The Optus satellite spectrum has been going for 10 years now and Gogo has over 350 aircraft across its satellite network, with  150 aircraft already operating the 2Ku technology we are going to us."

Pricing still to be determined

Virgin hasn’t revealed if the service will remain free after the trial period, but is believed to be leaning towards letting travellers choose between two levels of service: a Basic connection suitable for Web browsing, email and social media, and a High Speed pipeline for streaming video from the likes of Netflix.

In a survey sent to selected Virgin Australia passengers earlier this week, Virgin pitched a Basic connection at between $8 and $14 per flight, with the High Speed alternative at $15 to $21 per flight.

However, Virgin also allowed that “on some flights the price could be free, or the first 30 minutes could be free.” 

Read: Virgin polls travellers on inflight Internet pricing, usage

"Pricing is part of the feedback we want to get during the trial," Thomas explains.

"But based on my experience with US airlines, I don't think it will be a simple thing. The pushback a lot of people had in the US was over a fixed fee for a flight."

"People asked, why pay $15 if I'm only texting" Thomas says. "I imagine what we'll see will be something (similar) for streaming videos, using email and texting."

In the US Gogo also offers a flat-fee monthly pass for all flights on an airline, which could also join Virgin's product line-up.

Thomas added that Internet access could be offered free to business class passengers and Velocity Platinum frequent flyers.

Content partnerships with Netflix, Stan and Pandora will see those services take pride of place on the inflight portal, with passengers offered three months of free access to Netflix, Stan and Pandora Plus.

Voice apps such as Skype and FaceTime will be blocked during the trial, along with BitTorrent download sites.

PREVIOUS | Virgin Australia will flick the switch on sky-high WiFi next year, giving passengers on its domestic and international flights the ability to stay connected above the clouds.

Virgin’s domestic Boeing 737-800 and Airbus A330 jets, as well as its international Boeing 777-300ERs, will be equipped with satellite Internet from mid-2017.

The fleet-wide upgrade is expected to take "a couple of years", Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti told Australian Business Traveller during a media event in Los Angeles.

But it'll be well worth the wait, he attests.

“We are determined to give Virgin Australia customers the best possible combined connectivity and entertainment experience," Borghetti says.

He promises “what we think will be one of the world’s leading connectivity and entertainment networks, and we will work with strategic partners to offer our guests a truly personalised experience.”

The airline has not revealed how much passengers will pay for the service, although Qantas has notably promised free Internet on domestic flights next year.

While Borghetti is keeping his powder dry on the details, when asked if Virgin's service would also be free, he would say only that "our model is much more sophisticated than a simple yes or no (to that question)... but we have a very innovative model that were working on".

However, the CEO did allow that "we will not turn on voice technology" such as Skype and FaceTime.

Also read: Which airlines offer inflight Internet access from Australia?

David Flynn travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of Virgin Australia

Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT

David

David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

NZ Elite

03 Jul 2014

Total posts 108

I'd hope it's at least free in Business Class. Charging an extra $5/$7/$10/$20 or whatever to premium passengers just seems like nickle and diming to me.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 738

Frankly I hope they charge in the higher range for it. This ensures that the limited bandwidth isn't wasted on people just flapping about with it because it's cheap. Would happily pay $20 a sector or day for it to be usable, rather than being free or cheap and frustrating. 

NZ Elite

03 Jul 2014

Total posts 108

I flew Aer Lingus a year or two ago and didn't notice any issues (they offer free wifi in J).

I can't see four or five people on a Trans Tasman 737 (8 J seats only) slowing it down to a crawl.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 738

It would be cabin-wide, not just for J. 

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

19 Mar 2014

Total posts 574

Agree. I flew Norwegian Air recently, an LCC, and they have free WiFi to all pax. It was too slow to use and it didn't seem everyone was actually on it.

23 Feb 2016

Total posts 34

It would have more to do with high latency than overutilisation of the network.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

26 Feb 2016

Total posts 101

Better to charge it based on the amount of data. Say, J class can have 20MB per hour of flying for free (say, an SYD - PER flight will have 80MB free data, while a MEL-SYD flight will have 20MB free data), and the W/Y classes may purchase it at 10MB/$5 or so on. 

I bought twice in-flight internet service on SQ flights, and found that first, the speed was too slow to do anything seriously, and second, I didn't need it for the entire flight. 

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

08 Jun 2014

Total posts 222

20MB?! You're kidding right? Anyone that supplies free wifi with such low data amount are joking!!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Mar 2014

Total posts 205

What about free for Gold and Plat FF

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards Plantium

19 Jun 2013

Total posts 120

That would mean Virgin would actually have to look after their Plat FF.. which they don't!

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

19 Mar 2014

Total posts 574

Keeping up with the Joyce's!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Apr 2013

Total posts 388

Hopefully AJ responds concerning there international fleet by installing wifi on the A380s, A333s and ER B747s and from launch on the 787s. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Mar 2014

Total posts 205

really is it so necessary inflight internet

few hours of peace....

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Apr 2013

Total posts 388

Is Qantas installing wifi on their international a bad thing? If not, why the dislikes?

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Mar 2014

Total posts 205

Only advantage is live sports scores or punting!!

Dislikes - work will epxect me to answer my emails.

 


26 Jul 2015

Total posts 44

Tried it on Singapore a couple of weeks ago and was fabulous. Skyped for ages, clear as a bell. Something like that quality would be good.

S
S

13 Sep 2013

Total posts 105

Yeah me too. I skyped on the way home from FRA last night, I talked really loudly the top of my lungs the entire flight.
I got lots of irritated looks from people, but I just figured they were impressed that I was skyping

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

12 Jun 2016

Total posts 40

Please post the next flight you're on.I want to make sure I'm not on it!

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards Platinum

29 Aug 2014

Total posts 38

Is that mean I can play Pokemon Go in the middle of Pacific Ocean high above?? I wonder what sort of rare Pokemon will be up in the sky ;) (jk)

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

08 Jun 2014

Total posts 222

Excellent to hear. I'd try it but not always use it. 

31 Mar 2014

Total posts 293

Well Virgin kept that one pretty quiet compared to Qantas. It is great to see, however I can't see how 70mbit per aircraft will be sufficient. I know personally when it starts to slow down, it will just end up pissing me off.

QF

11 Jul 2014

Total posts 300

Nice little surprise from VA, where is Life Time Gold?

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

21 Mar 2017

Total posts 26

Tired inflight internet with Alaskan LAX-YVR in 2012 and it was amazing. Have used it on trans tasman sectors with EK, most of the time it won't work. An imessage won't even send. Be interesting to see how this goes.

13 Sep 2016

Total posts 184

The joy of competition! Now let's see how fast QF and VA can roll this out across their fleet so it can become a service you take for granted rather than 'surprise and delight'. Speed with the VA system is going to be an issue, there will be a lot of contention for limited bandwidth, so they will have to charge for this to keep usage down, if it's free everyone will be online.
Mal
Mal

14 Jun 2013

Total posts 360

That's exactly right Bob, this would be why VA is looking to have different pricing and speed tiers, it will give the Internet to those who do want it and keep the freeloaders on cheap tickets offline.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

26 Apr 2011

Total posts 5

I was part of the Virgin Australia survey last week comparing many different internet packages and fares between Qantas and Virgin. I wish there was an option in the survey to include getting food rather than only comparing internet packages & fares, as I would value food more, especially at meal times.

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