LiveTV Explains Why There Was Such Poor Signal Reception On My JetBlue Flight

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 SFOLGB LiveTV Signal Strength May 3try 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 Coverage AreaDirecTV 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.


12 Responses to LiveTV Explains Why There Was Such Poor Signal Reception On My JetBlue Flight

  1. Really Intriguing… I’m really interested what happens when there is a problem with some rows but not others..

    CF – Is it just me or is JetBlue/LiveTV trying to put you on the payroll, or do they just give you an exceptional amount of access?

  2. Nimitz says:

    Interesting and surprising that the poor coverage area is so close to the coast near SF. Why would that be? Is there some element of ground transmission that the system depends on?

  3. Nimitz, DirectTV satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, basically they stay in the same spot in relation to the earth at all times.

    They’re placed in space to provide service to the continental United States. There isn’t a ground component to DirectTV. (XM satellite radio on the other hand does have ground repeaters to fill in signal holes.

  4. CF says:

    Nicholas – JetBlue and LiveTV are actually run quite separately, so I don’t think there’s any larger effort here on their parts. You might remember that I was invited to visit LiveTV last November, and I wasn’t the only blogger invited to do so. They don’t do much PR or marketing work, but they really have engaged bloggers. So when I received the email from Nate, it wasn’t a tremendous surprise since I had already spent a fair amount of time with those guys.

    All I know is that if they continue to give me interesting information like this, they will keep showing up in posts. This post makes LiveTV look responsive but it also shows holes in their system, so it’s not the kind of post I would expect them to open up about if they were trying to put someone “on the payroll.”

  5. CF – Good point about the fact that this doesn’t put them in a 100% great light.

    The “on the payroll” was just uh, overly colorful language, and it went over as well as it did for Spock.

    Its a great entry and the access you bring is really great.

  6. Nimitz says:

    Nicholas,
    Yeah, that’s the source of my confusion. I’m wondering about the exact nature of the geosynchronous orbit that would cause an airplane at FL300 or so to experience poor signal so close to US mainland. Surely just ignorance on my part, but I find that surprising.

  7. Nimitz, If you look at the map for the 18″ dish it pretty closely parallels the California coast. Since LiveTV is an even smaller dish I expect it to be even closer to the coast. (following the differences from the 32″ to 18″ dish, it stands to reason a smaller dish has coverage area that brings it even closer to the land.)

    I don’t think the Flight level has much to do with reception. Geostationary satellites are 117,406,080 feet above sea level. FL300 is just over 0.002% of the distance to the satellite. My trig might be a little rusty but I’d imagine this has almost no effect on reception..

    Cranky, did they offer free movies on this trip due to the reception, or was the flight time just too short to even start? Also did the XM radio work? It looks like from this map http://satellite-radio-source.ca/store//catalog/xm-map.gif that the coverage area would include your flight..

  8. David SFeastbay says:

    So jetblue gives out $15 credits to passengers for something that sounds like is not their fault. Does LiveTV credit jetblue (or any other carriers) because their little yellow line doesn’t go far enough off shore? Not a good thing to have iffy service between the Wests two most busiest travel markets, the Bay Area and Southern California.

  9. CF says:

    Nicholas – No free movies – the flight wasn’t even an hour long. They did have the New York Times channel running, and of course, the live map. That map is garbage these days – 75% of the time it’s just an ad. But I do believe the XM worked, though I honestly don’t completely remember.

    Dave SF – I suppose that it’s almost never JetBlue’s fault when a TV doesn’t work, so you would think they have some arrangement with LiveTV to transfer the amount from them. Remember, JetBlue owns LiveTV, so it’s ultimately just an accounting move. It is pretty bad to have this problem off the west coast, though they did say this was one of the worst they’d seen. It’s rare to have problems like this.

  10. Brian Lusk says:

    CF
    I am owndering if he explained this to you. The DirecTV dish on my house points south and is aimed at a specific satellite. Are the dishes on the airplane mobile and turn toward a specific satellite or are they mulitdirectional and depend on signals reaching them from any direction (considering that aircraft while flying a ggeneral direction go through vectoring that can have them pointing any and all directions. My home dish is so sensitive that a very strong wind can sometimes unalign it. How do they track the satellite with the antenna?

  11. CF says:

    Brian – My understanding is that the antenna moves around until it locks on to the signal and then it will move to stay locked on the satellite.

  12. Nick B says:

    This would explain the issues with the DirecTV on my flight from San Diego to Seattle yesterday. Oddly enough, once the flight was over Los Angeles the signal was good until we got over Vashon Island on downwind to runway 16R in Seattle.

    Regarding the map, after having flown down to San Diego via San Francisco on Virgin America, the map that comes with DirecTV is pretty much worthless. Asside from the zoom and movable functions on the map on Virgin America, the map on JetBlue just falls flat due to the oversized airplane and all of the ads one has to sit through.

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