JetBlue launches inflight Wi-Fi, promising a home broadband experience in the sky

It’s taken a while for JetBlue(s jblu) to get its long promised Wi-Fi service ready, but its passengers likely will feel it was worth the wait. The airline on Wednesday launched FlyFi, an inflight internet service JetBlue claims will be the first to deliver a broadband experience akin to home connectivity. But that’s not the half of it: JetBlue is also giving away basic access to the network free to all passengers.

While other airlines use Gogo’s ground-to-air connectivity or Row 44’s satellite links, JetBlue has held out for one of the advanced broadband connections in the skies: ViaSat’s next-generation satellite, which beams a constant 140 Gbps link to the ground.

wi-fi-zone1JetBlue isn’t tapping all of that capacity, according to Jamie Perry, JetBlue’s director of product development, but JetBlue isn’t rate-limited like other airlines. As more passengers sign on to use the service, overall network speeds won’t decline for all users. Instead ViaSat will pump more capacity into the aircraft, ensuring a decent broadband connection is available to all, Perry said.

What’s a decent connection? Perry said speed tests on FlyFi’s trial flights produced connections as fast as 20 Mbps to the device, though as with any shared wireless network, speeds are subject to fluctuations. JetBlue isn’t promising any baseline speed, however. Instead, Perry said, the airline is claiming that passengers will get a true broadband experience. They will be able to browse the web with ease, stream music, and even watch standard definition video with no interruption, he said.

JetBlue wanted to make the service an amenity similar to the free DirecTV(s dtv) access it offers to flyers, so it’s made the basic internet service gratis. It’s charging $9 an hour for an upgraded streaming service, which will let customers’ stream video and music. Customers on the basic plan can still watch video without bandwidth restrictions, but after they consume a certain amount of data (Perry didn’t say how much) they’ll find their speeds throttled for the rest of the flight.

“If you went to YouTube(s goog) and watched a 90-second video, you would be fine,” Perry said. “If you went to Netflix(s nflx) and started watching a hi-def video, it wouldn’t be long before a message popped up saying you should upgrade to the premium service.”

So far JetBlue has FlyFi installed on only three aircraft, but it is in the process of rapidly upgrading its fleet. It’s Perry’s hope that the majority of its aircraft will be FlyFi-capable in the third quarter, and the entire fleet will have the service in 2015. JetBlue is testing out the current pricing for six months to see how passengers use it, and it could tweak the pricing next year depending on the mix. But Perry said JetBlue will most likely keep some kind of free option in place since these types of amenities distinguish it from its airline competitors.