Wi-Fly wars: Qantas and Virgin’s battle for Internet in the air

Angus Kidman 31 March 2017

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Which airline will offer a better Wi-Fi service, and which one will be cheaper?

For people (like me) obsessed with exactly when we'll get in-flight Wi-Fi on domestic flights in Australia, it has been an interesting week.

Firstly, Qantas suffered a minor snafu when a planned media launch for its NBN-based in-flight Wi-Fi offering was called off at the last minute, owing to unspecified "stability issues". To avoid any confusion: despite some fairly lurid headlines this week, Qantas hasn't actually cancelled the service or its future plans for it. It just wasn't quite confident enough to send a plane load of journalists (including my good self) up into the sky to see how well it worked.

Then Virgin fleshed out details of its plans for offering in-flight Wi-Fi, which were first announced last year. Beginning in April, Virgin will run tests using a single 737-800 aircraft, with satellite service provided by Optus and Gogo. The Gogo brand will be familiar to anyone who has flown in the US, where it's the dominant provider of in-flight services. After a three-month trial, it plans to extend the service to all of its 737-800, 777 and A3300 aircraft.

The big unanswered question about Virgin's plans is whether the service will ultimately be free, matching Qantas' offer. During the testing period, any passengers who end up on the test aircraft will be able to use the service for free, and will even get three months' free access to Netflix and Pandora Plus. But after that, it's less clear.

Virgin's announcement includes this mildly ominous sentence: "Virgin Australia will finalise its business model after considering customer feedback and the results of the testing period." In other words: we ain't promising no free stuff, kiddies.

The competitive reality is that if Qantas is offering in-flight Wi-Fi for nothing, Virgin will be pressured to follow suit. The one possible exception? If the reliability of Virgin's service turns out to be better. That seems unlikely - all satellite technology has limitations - but I guess we can't eliminate it outright at this point. Virgin's announcement notes that Optus has five satellites which can be used; Qantas will have access to just two NBN Sky Muster satellites.

Qantas is still talking about a mid-year launch for its full service, which means it will be in market well ahead of Virgin. The bottom line? Whichever of the two premium domestic carriers you take, by 2018 you should be enjoying in-flight connectivity. As long as the satellites keep working, anyway.

Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears Monday through Friday on finder.com.au.

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