This past Saturday, Gadling participated in a special flight celebrating the launch of inflight Internet on board Virgin America.
During this flight, I worked hard to test every aspect of the service I could. I looked into the kind of products and services many of us use on the road.
The Wi-Fi enabled plane will enter commercial service as a special Thanksgiving surprise for passengers on Virgin America plane N638VA (“My Other Ride Is A Spaceship”).
Internet access for the duration of the flight is $9.95 for flights 3 hours or less, and $12.95 on longer flights. Passengers can connect to the service using 802.11 a/b or g Wi-Fi.
Virgin America plans to have the service available on their entire fleet by the second quarter of 2009, making them the first and only airline in the country with fleet wide Internet service.
Here are the services I put to the test:Web
Needless to say that this part of the service worked just fine. Right after the signal was turned on, I was able to get speeds in excess of 1.5mbps, and the lag was very minimal. As more people started getting online I noticed a slight drop in speed, but even when the entire plane was surfing away, it never became too slow to use for web access.
Secure web sites worked fine, as did connecting through a VPN service, which I’d suggest you do if you plan to connect to stuff you don’t want to share with anyone else on the flight as the Wi-Fi service is unencrypted.
Youtube video streaming
Yes, Youtube worked great. Of course, no amount of high speed Internet in the air will be able to bring talent to those of us without it, so the quality of the content won’t always improve with your altitude.
During the flight we were treated to some fantastic video clips, created for this event including this list of 5 things not to wear at the airport, by Youtube celebrity William Sledd.
Skype calls worked just fine — the fineprint on this one is that the Gogo service was intentionally left fairly “open” for us, so it is entirely possible that this may not work on the usual commercial flights.
Instant messaging (using Digsby and Trillian) worked fine. Of course, you’ll have to spend a little time explaining to the folks on the ground exactly where you are. If you are really geeky, you can even use your IM client to chat with people around you, though Virgin America also offer that on the RED inflight entertainment system in every seat.
Email access was a breeze; I got online with Gmail and through my regular email client (Thunderbird) and was able to send and receive my messages. I even received the official press release from Virgin America a few minutes after they sent it (from the seat in front of me).
I fired up my Slacker music player and within about 20 seconds I had a live stream of my own favorite radio station. I minimized the player and enjoyed it in the background while surfing. At no point did I ever hear a stutter or stall in the stream, even after 5 minutes. Of course, this is another service that may or may not be available when the service is live on regular flights.
Those of you hoping to watch some live TV during your flight will be surprised to hear that I was able to connect to my Slingbox and schedule a recording on my Tivo. The video quality is fairly low, but it is certainly usable if you just need to catch up on the latest episode of whatever series you are hooked on.
Of course, a laptop is not the only device that works on the Gogo service. During the flight many people were walking around with their iPhone or Blackberry. I brought my T-Mobile G1 along, and was online in about 30 seconds.
A list of devices tested with the service can be found on the Gogo site.
When I was done with my list of things to test, I tried accessing a P2P service (Bittorrent), a porn site and Hulu.com. All of these services worked, but by then the entire plane was using up all the available bandwidth, so none of them worked particularly well. Of course, I also don’t see these services exactly as the kind of thing you’d really need during a flight, but it was good to see that the connection functioned without any restrictions.
The technology (for the geeks)
The Aircell Gogo inflight Internet service uses ground stations based off EVDO Rev.A technology, similar to the broadband services offered by Verizon and Sprint. Each plane has about 3.1mbps to the plane, and 1.8Mbps back to the ground. Unlike previous systems (like the now extinct Boing Connexion system), the Gogo equipment weighs just 125 pounds and can be installed in a single day.
Thanks to Virgin America, Aircell, HP and Youtube!
I’d once again like to thank the fantastic people at Virgin America, their awesome PR team, stunning flight attendants and everyone from Aircell who helped put this event together. And of course, the teams from Youtube and HP, who provided some great inflight entertainment and an assortment of laptops to play with.
My only regret was that I was stuck flying United Airlines back home, and had to settle for a $6 snackbox and no Internet access.