Can Wifi Really Be a Differentiator for JetBlue?

When JetBlue first launched, it used inflight entertainment as one of the greatest initial product differentiators of all time, and now it’s trying to do it again with a new breed of wifi. Is this really going to have the same impact? I’m far from convinced, but it’s an interesting play.

I imagine most of us know the JetBlue story. When the airline launched over a decade ago, it was the first to put live television in an airplane. I seem to recall that the original plan was to charge for it, but in the end, the draw of the product was considered to be so important that it was offered for free. The brand was originally built around this, and it instantly communicated that JetBlue was a high quality kind of low cost carrier. It was a brilliant move.

Since that time, many have copied JetBlue’s original plan. Heck, Frontier and United actually use systems owned by JetBlue’s LiveTV subsidiary. But they aren’t the only ones. Delta introduced television on its failed JetBlue-competitor, Song. Song may have failed, but the TVs stuck around. And of course, Virgin America has it as well. But it now goes beyond that. You can watch a handful of live TV channels on Southwest on your own device, for example. This isn’t nearly the powerful differentiator it used to be.

Since that time, JetBlue has done a great job of building a strong brand, but it hasn’t found that next killer innovation. (Sorry, JetBlue, but those boxes of food that will survive a nuclear winter don’t count.) In fact, the airline has shown restraint when it comes to rolling out the next step in inflight entertainment… wifi.

Strangely enough, JetBlue was fairly early in deciding to try out wifi when it created its one test airplane, BetaBlue. The airline wrongly thought that people really just cared about checking email. So a slow, narrowband solution that would really only allow people to check email would work, right? No. Not at all. BetaBlue quietly lost its wifi along with its Yahoo and Blackberry logos.

Meanwhile, other airlines raced to install wifi. Most airlines in the US have gone with for their domestic offerings. The result is that wifi is widely available, but it’s not lightning-fast. Sometimes it slows to a crawl depending upon how many people are using it. (My wife was on a US Airways flight yesterday that had such slow connectivity that it was unusable.) And it also dies once you get over water, an issue for airlines that do a lot of flying to Hawai’i or the Caribbean. Southwest went with , and while the speeds aren’t terrible, they aren’t what you’ll find on the ground either. Southwest started off with a $5 per flight intro price, but that has since gone up to $8, still a bargain compared to what the other airlines charge.

While all this was happening, JetBlue sat around waiting for something new and better. Did the airline miss out on the chance to become like Virgin America and AirTran and be one of the first airlines with wifi fleetwide? Yes. But JetBlue is instead banking on a different story. It’s thinking that by putting on a superior wifi product, it will reap the benefits.

The problem is that it’s still not live. The official word is that the . The necessary satellite is up there, and now they just need to get this thing working and then approved by the feds… some day.

The airline clearly thinks that it’s getting close because it has ramped up talking about its offering. The . And there’s talk that there may be a free option going forward. It’s that “freemium” model where you get a base level of service for free, but you can get higher speeds if you pay.

How high will these speeds be? The airline is acting like it will be as fast as it is in your living room. I don’t know about you, but I have Verizon FiOS and I can download at over 30 Mbps. Are we talking about speeds as fast as I can get in my living room? Or are we talking about speeds as fast as someone with DSL gets? I really don’t care what’s promised. I want to see it in action.

The folks at JetBlue clearly think they’re on to something, because they’re starting to talk. I have to assume that means they are really starting to understand what they can deliver and how much it will cost. That’s encouraging. But will it be the game-changer that gets people to flee other airlines? It will at least make them competitive for those customers who want to be connected in the air, but I don’t know that it will do much beyond that. I suppose I need to reserve final judgment until I’ve had the chance to use it.

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