Shortly after I published my trip report including the non-functioning televisions on JetBlue, I received an email from LiveTV’s CEO Nate Quigley about my flight. He offered to walk me through what happened and try to explain why my flight had problems. It ended up being a fascinating discussion, and I’m really glad he reached out.
At left, you’ll see the map showing the signal performance on my flight. Green means the signal was good and red means it wasn’t. As you can see, it was not good. Thought you see a couple of green specks on the way down, the individual channel reports show that the channels still weren’t coming through until the end. In that much more detailed report, from boarding until we started taxiing at SFO, the signal was good on many but not all channels. Once we started taxiing, it was good only on a few channels. Within 5 minutes of departure, the signal had been lost entirely. It stayed that way until 14 minutes prior to landing when the signal came back.
So what happened? Apparently, we’re on the wild frontier out here on the West Coast, and these flights go over the toughest areas to pick up DirecTV signals in the continental US. Take a look at this map at right showing the DirecTV coverage area.
The antennas they use are actually slightly smaller than the 18″ dish, so the footprint is a bit smaller as well. As you can see, most of the US is covered very well, but just off San Francisco, the coverage ends. Now Nate showed me plenty of other flights over the same routes that received a much better signal. He estimated that on 8 out of 10 flights off the coast, you’ll get a great experience, but you might run into some trouble on the rest. My flight was an anomaly in that it was bad for much longer than even would be expected on those 2 out of 10 flights that might see some trouble. But why?
Did the clouds have anything to do with it? Nope. Nate explained that the only thing that interferes with the signal is standing moisture on the radome. That’s why you sometimes get obscured signals on the ground in heavy rain or some snow. But once you get moving, that moisture flies off and it’s not a problem anymore. We had the opposite problem on my flight where the signal was better when we were standing still, so that couldn’t have been the problem.
Was it a bad antenna? It doesn’t look that way. All the other flights on that aircraft over the three day period surrounding mine were trouble-free. It’s possible that this antenna is a little weaker than others, so it might have been more likely to run into problems flying at the edge of the coverage zone than others, but that’s also not clear. It is, however, something they will keep an eye on. They are constantly monitoring airplanes to see if there are some problematic ones out there, and they’ll fix them if necessary.
So was it really just a problem of being on the edge of the coverage area? Quite possibly. Or there could have been a sunspot or some other random occurrence that may just have screwed things up for flights on the edge of the area. It’s amazing the volume of data these guys have to make sure that they can address these types of problems, though that doesn’t always mean they can pinpoint the exact reason.
At least now we know that weather isn’t an issue. It’s more than likely just a problem of flying around the edge of the coverage area. So those of you flying between San Francisco or Oakland and Long Beach might want to be prepared. While the northbound flights tend to go more inland, the southbound ones head out of the water, and that means they might be run into trouble with satellite reception from time to time. (San Jose flights nearly always stay inland.)
I have to say thanks again to Nate and the LiveTV crew for putting together this incredibly comprehensive report for me. A minute-by-minute report on the signal strength on each channel is just an impressive amount of data. And their willingness to reach out and be open about this is really refreshing.