JetBlue Quietly Launches “Free” In-Flight WiFi, Charges $9/Hour If You Want Streaming Quality

If you just want to go online, check your e-mail or update your Facebook status, you probably won't need to ante up for the pricey Fly-Fi Plus tier.

If you just want to go online, check your e-mail or update your Facebook status, you probably won’t need to ante up for the pricey Fly-Fi Plus tier.

It’s been more than a year since JetBlue first confirmed that it would be installing next-generation, satellite-based WiFi on its planes, and that the service would initially be free to passengers. Well, even though it’s still weeks away from the official launch of the “Fly-Fi” service, the airline quietly flipped the switch yesterday on at least one jet, and revealed that there are two tiers of service, one of which could cost you quite a bit of money.

Engadget’s Zach Honig managed to get on this first Fly-Fi flight, from JFK International in New York to Austin, and things didn’t exactly go so well in the service’s debut.

“Unfortunately, a recent update caused unexpected performance issues, and Fly-Fi’s speed and consistency fell far short,” writes Honig. “When a flight attendant asked the woman seated in front if me if she had enjoyed her experience at the end of the flight, she responded with ‘not so much.'”

Since he was just making this trip to get his hands on the Fly-Fi, Honig got a bit of lunch at the Austin airport and headed back to JFK. This time, things were much improved.

With the exception of a 30-minute loss of service during the flight, he says that the connection, provided by the folks at ViaSat, was as solid and speedy as that company’s products for Internet users on terra firma, at least when upgrading from the free “Simply Surf” tier to the “Fly-Fi Plus” pay-as-you-go plan that could add quite a bit on to the cost of your flight, depending on how many hours you plan on using it.

“I had no problem loading picture-heavy websites and videos on YouTube after upgrading to Fly-Fi Plus, which currently costs $9 per hour (ouch!),” writes Honig, adding that the Fly-Fi Plus access can be paused so that you’re not running up a huge tab just because you can’t find anything worth watching on Netflix.

He even tried hosting a Google Hangout via webcam with a few on-the-ground friends and said the audio was inconsistent, which can be explained by the rather strict upload caps put in place to optimize the service for passengers who want to stream video and audio.

As for the free service, Honig writes that he was able to stream songs from Spotify and do normal Internet things that don’t hog a ton of data, like load Twitter feeds, check and send e-mails.

So for people who want to get some work done or just browse the Web online, the free Fly-Fi tier may be fine. But it looks like the dream of freely streaming episodes of Longmire on Netflix as you fly across the country is just not to be.

Right now, the service is only on a couple of planes, and Honig says that these jets are not assigned to specific routes until a couple of days before departure, so there is currently no way to be sure that you’re going to be getting on a Fly-Fi flight anytime soon.

What also remains to be seen is whether the free tier will remain after the initial roll-out. JetBlue had originally planned to only offer free service until they hit the 30-plane threshold (which is only about 9% of its fleet) then it would decide whether to continue. But at that point, there was no public mention of the Plus tier.

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