Virgin America pledges Netflix-in-the-air wifi speeds

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan August 2, 2015
Virgin America's used wifi as a competitive differentiator for years, but there's more to come, says CEO David Cush.

David Cush

Having wifi on airline flights is still a relative novelty for many of us, but regular users of Virgin America will be well-accustomed to the facility. But there are some major enhancements to come soon, with the airline promising online speeds fast enough to stream Netflix in-flight by next year.

The airline has announced a new partnership with ViaSat to deliver high-speed wi-fi capable of video and audio streaming. Ten new A320 aircraft will be kitted out in order to provide the faster connection.

The system will be trailed on flights to Hawaii in the first few months of 2016, during which time it will be free of charge to encourage heavier usage for resiliency testing purposes.

According to Virgin America, what’s expected are speeds of up to 30 times the speed of the original ATG (Air To Ground) that most airlines still fly and 10 times what Virgin’s current craft do. This increase will be made possible by using the Ka satellite across the US.

David Cush, Virgin America CEO, is confident that the upgrade will maintain the airline’s competitive differentiator as rivals play catch-up with their own wifi offerings. He says:

When it comes to Wi-Fi, our strategy has always been simple that we want to adopt the most robust system that has been FAA approved and we did it six years ago when the first version of Gogo [Inflight Intenrnet] was released. At that time, we became the first airline to have fleet-wide Wi-Fi with that first generation of Gogo.

Then we did it a couple years ago again when we were the first and to this day the only airline to adopt Gogo's ATG-4 system fleet-wide which more than tripled the speed and bandwidth over the original Gogo system that we had implemented and the Gogo system that most airlines still fly.

Now we will be the first airline to adopt the Ka/Ku hybrid antenna that ViaSat offers. That will allow us to take advantage of low bandwidth cost and high speed Ka technology while we are flying over the Continental USA and that will give you stream video speeds and basically the speeds you get at home.

The system will also seamlessly switch to Ku band when flying over to Hawaii, because Ka doesn't reach over the oceans. So this is a pretty unique feature that we have in our product and one that we think will keep us in the forefront. The system is being installed on our ten new aircraft and we plan on staying on the forefront when it comes to connectivity in the air.

Cush sees continuing investment in the airline’s wifi functionality as critical in terms of maintaining a competitive customer experience, particularly at a time when on-board wifi still isn’t the norm:

It is still not ubiquitous, as much as we think it is. You get on plenty of airplanes that don't have wifi. That is an important element, especially for business travellers. They want to know that it is there and they want to know that it works.

We know, even with ATG-4, that our network gets overwhelmed on certain high business routes such as Boston and New York, so our strong gut feel is that by migrating to a satellite-based system, the bandwidth capabilities that we have will once again push us back to kind of a premium revenue position, while the other guys are still flying around with ATG and ATG-4.

So our expectation is as we roll out this program that we will once again be able to command a premium just because of the quality of the service.

He adds that this will keep Virgin America ahead of the pack for some time:

With the new satellite system, the fact is if a legacy carrier decided to switch systems, it would take them years to be able to do it .

Monetising wifi and re-platforming RED

Once the free trial period is over, a revenue model will be determined, explains Cush:

We are likely leaning toward a paid model rather than a sponsored model.

We are not in the business of giving away things for free that people are willing to pay for, so our gut feel is that there is a way to monetize that. It is still early days

For the first several months, it is going to be free for everyone on the airplane as we are testing it on the first handful of airplanes, but our strong preference is to find a way to monetize that and we think there is a way of doing it on a fee basis.

RED entertainment

Away from wifi, technology investment continues in the airline’s RED on-board entertainment system that’s been re-platformed. Cush says:

The importance of our new platform for RED should not be underestimated. The platform we had before was built on Linux. It was built 10 years ago and it had some tremendous limitations. At the same time, it was still tremendously popular. The new one is tremendously flexible.

Still in beta, the new Android-based platform will provide Virgin America with a number of things, predicts Cush:

First of all, it will allow us to make faster content improvements in the short-term and in the long-term, it will allow us to go and further connect, personalize and expand RED in entirely new ways. Travellers that are flying on it now and travellers that will fly on it in the fall as we continue to implement more [aircraft], will notice immediate changes, the first and most obvious being the screens which are brighter, higher resolution and capacitive touch.

We will also have more storage capacity and that will allow the platform to host three times as much cache content, better interactive games. We have also installed surround sound on a number of the programs that we offer on RED, so lots of good things going on there.

Cush concludes:

We are not sitting on our Laurels and we are not standing still. That others have made product improvements, but we are convinced that these improvements that have been a couple of years in the works is going to allow us to continue to push the envelope and stay ahead of the competition.

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