There’s little going on in the skies quite as entertaining as the battle to bring you better, faster, stronger Wi-Fi.

In a surprise disruption to the status quo, Virgin America has announced that it will introduce ViaSat’s new Exede Ku/Ka-Band Satellite powered Wi-Fi on its 10 new A320s, starting this year.

This was a head-turning announcement because Virgin America became the first U.S. airline to roll-out fleet-wide installations of Gogo’s air-to-ground (ATG-4) Wi-Fi connections on all 53 of its A320s, just at the end of last year.

Entertainment Is Everything

So what caused this sudden strategic shift by Virgin America? As we’ve reported in various ways on a number of occasions, tomorrow’s passenger experience improvements focus heavily on giving passengers the most entertainment options possible, especially on longer flights.

This is particularly important to airlines which need to differentiate to compete without giving up valuable revenue space onboard through strategies like taking out rows of seats to add legroom. The popular tendency today is to drive passengers to distraction, occupying them with enough in-flight entertainment and in-flight connectivity choices that long flights just — pardon — fly-by.

But content is expensive, as is in-flight entertainment equipment. Some airlines offer BYOD (bring your own device) options only, others complementing their existing product with additional entertainment options powered by passengers’ own devices and content links.

The latter model drives Virgin America’s latest decision. This upgrade to ViaSat’s new Ku- and Ka-band service will give passengers Wi-Fi powerful enough to stream video content at 35,000 feet, and complements the Beta launch of the airline’s updated Red in-flight entertainment platform.

High-Capacity, Fast-Delivery

ViaSat has carefully positioned its Exede product to make the most of its own ViaSat-1 satellite capabilities and of its satellite partners, while waiting for its ViaSat-2 satellite deployment. To extend its coverage beyond the U.S. mainland, the company introduced a new hybrid Ku- and Ka-band antenna which can reach the best signal available as aircraft move over water. It also established the necessary partnerships to borrow satellite signals beyond the reach of its ViaSat-1. This has led to the rapid-deployment of an upgraded product which has now proven to be a significant advantage.

When we reached out to Gogo to ask for their reaction to this news, Steve Nolan, Vice President of Communications told us candidly that ViaSat’s ability to deliver the Ka/Ku connection on an expedited timeline influenced the airline’s decision. Gogo’s own new 2Ku hybrid satellite ATG service is not yet ready to deploy.

“[T]here are definitely some timing issues related to the decision on these 10 aircraft,” he tells us. “Virgin America wanted some of these aircraft installed before 2Ku would be ready.”

The two rivals have debated the relative strengths of their product both on range and overall capacity, and supply of Wi-Fi connections are always affected by demand, but ViaSat’s technology delivers internet capacity of 140 Gbps — enough to power video streaming and 8 to 10 times faster than any rival’s service, as the company asserts.

“Our competitive advantage is rooted in the unique bandwidth economics of ViaSat-1 and the forthcoming ViaSat-2 satellite networks,” says said Don Buchman, Vice President and General Manager, Commercial Mobility Business, ViaSat. “We can empower airlines to engage all of their guests in an in-flight, online experience just like they’d get on the ground—including streaming high quality video.”

ViaSat has long proposed this entertainment strategy as integral to the expansion of its commercial airline services. It has also suggested that content could help airlines finance the product depending on their business model.

It also has a history of powerful Wi-Fi that give its claims substance. The company’s Viasat-1 satellite powers JetBlue’s Fly-Fi product, and select aircraft in United’s fleet. It has also established its aim to extend services beyond U.S. borders. ViaSat’s Exede Ka-band service will also be introduced on flights between Tel Aviv and select European cities on EL/AL airlines’ Boeing 737s sometime next year, through a satellite service partnership between ViaSat and Eutelsat.

Launching Hybrid Ku/Ka 

For many passengers, the fact that all this power comes from a new hybrid Ku/Ka antenna is much less important than the power itself. Some may even wonder why any of this Ku-Ka baby talk is important. Unless you’re in the business, it’s not. After all, they’re only terms for signal frequencies.

But, just like the battle between AM and FM and ultimately Satellite radio mattered to the quality of service, the quest to find the best antenna configuration to deliver services and to pick up on as many possible variants of frequencies available from satellites overhead make a big difference to in-flight Wi-Fi’s onboard supply and demand and uninterrupted range. ViaSat’s new Ku/Ka antenna should allow passengers to seamlessly switch over from one frequency to another so that they can enjoy their connection with no significant impact to performance.

Virgin America has taken a leap forward among its U.S. rivals by becoming the first commercial airline to adopt ViaSat’s new hybrid Ku/Ka-band antenna. And the extended range of ViaSat’s Exede Wi-Fi service afforded by this antenna configuration will mean Virgin America can keep passengers connected on its new flights to Hawaii starting in 2016.

More, More, More

For Virgin America, this decision is all about improving the cabin experience for passengers, as it continues to differentiate its brand and keep its loyal customers happy.

“The idea behind our in-flight entertainment and connectivity offerings has always been to offer travelers more content, more interactivity and more of the choices they have access to on the ground,” says Ken Bieler, Director of Product Design and Innovation at Virgin America. “Since 2009, our guests have come to rely on and expect Wi-Fi access on every flight, and we’ve continued to improve our Wi-Fi product offering over the years. Bringing ViaSat’s satellite-based Wi-Fi product to our new delivery aircraft will again allow us to make an industry-leading investment in our product. We are excited about this new technology and the possibility it opens up for Wi-Fi coverage on our new Hawaii flights and for travelers who wish to stream video in-flight.”

Buchman adds: “Virgin America is a brand that shares our love of innovation and strives to bring the best service possible to the traveler. By leveraging our technology, Virgin America can maximize passenger engagement and increase customer loyalty.”

He has made this point previously, emphasizing that, to build passenger loyalty, airlines must deliver a Wi-Fi wow factor. “To be competitive, airlines must go beyond delivering good Wi-Fi service to delivering a best-in-class Wi-Fi strategy,” he said shortly after the Exede service won a Crystal Cabin Award at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.

Not Set Back, But Aside

This setback on ten A320s aside, Gogo does not see it the development as a dark mark on its relationship with Virgin America, and says it is still in discussions over Gogo’s 2Ku service with the airline. “We continue to discuss 2Ku as a technology option on other Virgin America aircraft,” says Nolan. “We .. provide service on the 52 aircraft on their existing fleet and look forward to continuing to provide that service for the foreseeable future.”

Nolan also emphasises the attractiveness of the 2Ku product to airlines around the world. “Since we announced 2Ku a little more than a year ago, we’ve received more than 500 aircraft commitments on 7 airlines with the latest being GOL’s entire fleet,” he says. “There hasn’t been anything close to that adoption rate in terms of other competitive technologies since we announced 2Ku.”

But showing up is half the battle and, in this case, ViaSat was ready to show up and deliver as quickly as the airline wanted.

What Happened to Free?

One disappointment from this announcement was nearly hidden in the footnotes. Despite the promise of a future world where we can enjoy free Wi-Fi in the sky thanks to various revenue models, we don’t seem to be quite there yet.

During the introductory period of this new Wi-Fi service, Virgin America will offer free connections on its first ViaSat equipped aircraft, which will take flight in September 2015. But the airline has said it will introduce pricing for this faster Wi-Fi service in 2016.

With JetBlue finding business cases to support offering its standard Fly-Fi product free indefinitely, that could be something Virgin America needs to review.

We reached out to the airline for insights on how this pricing might evolve, but have not yet received a reply at the time of publication. We’ll keep you posted, as we’re confident you’ll want to know, in relative Wi-Fi terms, tout-de-suite.

Photo Credit: Virgin America will introduce Viasat's new Exede Ku- and Ka-band high-speed Wi-Fi onboard its new A320s Virgin America