Jetstar, Virgin nix Wi-Fi rollout on Australian flights for now

Airlines claim any implementation is hampered by lack of base stations

Jetstar and Virgin say that the rollout of Wi-Fi internet on board flights in Australia won't take place until third party providers begin installing terrestrial Wi-Fi base stations to provide internet connectivity.

A Jetstar spokesperson said that the airline had no immediate plans to introduce Wi-Fi as this would be an expensive technology for customers.

"Compared to high density areas in the US, the number of Wi-Fi base stations that match flight paths in Australia is extremely limited." A Virgin spokesperson said that the airline was evaluating a number of in-flight entertainment options, including Wi-Fi and will be announcing the outcomes of these tests shortly.

However, according to a background statement provided by Virgin, the airline was hampered by the lack of ground stations in Australia.

The statement read that it was much easier to provider internet connectivity in the US due to the well-established ground stations and number of passengers travelling which made it cost effective for US airlines to provide the service.

In the US, a number of companies such as Aircell equip airliners and business jets with in-cabin Wi-Fi systems and operate a network of cellular base stations around the US to send data from the internet to the planes and back.

Telsyte senior analyst, Rodney Gedda, said that Australian airlines needed to find the most cost-effective way to enable in-flight Wi-Fi or wired internet access as a value-add or premium service for business customers, particularly for longer flights.

"In the future this [service] can be extended to all passengers," Gedda said. "While it is possible to use terrestrial systems as the backhaul for in-flight internet access, local carriers should be looking at satellite as it does not require the build-out of another base station network."

Jetstar said utilising satellite technology was also an option but an expensive one that would need to be passed back to the passenger.

"As a low cost carrier, we need to assess what is acceptable and affordable for our customers," the spokesperson said.

Virgin's spokesperson replied that it was investigating a range of options, including satellite, and would announce its decision in due course. However, no timeframe was given.

Qantas said it was investigating the possibility of Wi-Fi but would not comment on whether the lack of base stations was a barrier.

"In 2008 we conducted a lengthy trial of personal electronic device and in-flight mobile phone capability with a focus on SMS and emails," a spokesperson said "Since than, significant fleet, configuration and supplier developments have provided opportunities for broader considerations of in-flight connectivity."

She added that the airline recently concluded a fleet-wide connectivity review and would "define a long term strategy" shortly. However, she would not say when this strategy would be announced.

An Air New Zealand spokesman said the airline had no plans to trial Wi-Fi in ANZ but it was working to overcome the problem of mobile phones interfering with aircraft instruments. In February 2011, a trial was conducted with Vodafone NZ that used an aircraft-based cell site and external satellites. This enabled passengers to use their mobile phones on an A320 flight during cruise mode but not during take off and landing.

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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