United Announces Onboard Wifi, But It’s Hardly a Ringing Endorsement

Earlier this week, United announced that it will finally put wifi onboard about 200 of its airplanes. You would think that this would finally resolve the wifi question at the new world’s largest airline, but it doesn’t. I imagine this was just a great deal that they couldn’t pass up.

United's Wifi Transition

The announcement said that United had signed a letter of intent with LiveTV to put wifi onboard more than 200 Continental airplanes. This deal is for Ka band satellite, the super fancy, cheap, and fast version of satellite internet that JetBlue said it would install last year, though it’s not yet operational anywhere. In the past, neither United nor Continental had seen it worthwhile to put internet onboard except on United’s tiny fleet of p.s. airplanes that fly between JFK and both LA and San Francisco. So what’s changed?

Continental signed up long ago to put LiveTV on most of its domestic fleet. There are already 165 airplanes with this onboard and another 53 scheduled to get it. That means a total of 218 airplanes, or the “more than 200″ that will get wifi per the announcement. I assume every airplane with LiveTV will end up with wifi as part of this deal.

So has United seen the light and decided that, like Delta, it thinks wifi is important for the future? I’m not so sure. One of the big questions surrounding this merger is what will happen to the onboard product on the domestic fleet. It seems that the TVs on the Continental fleet are safe for now, but did LiveTV have to pony up to make that happen? While JetBlue has signed up for this internet offering already (as it should since it owns LiveTV), it’s not operational anywhere yet. But LiveTV is high on this, and it was also probably quite concerned about the possibility of losing its TV contract with the new United.

So did LiveTV give United a sweetheart deal on internet to a) keep its TVs onboard and b) help build the buzz around the internet offering? It seems quite possible to me. And that’s probably a smart business move on LiveTV’s part. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that United is sold on internet. If it was, I imagine that we would have seen a complete announcement about the domestic fleet and not just a partial one.

What does this mean for the future of entertainment on United? It does seem clear that TV is going to stay for now, but whether it will be expanded or not is entirely unclear. The incompleteness of this announcement is why I figure that LiveTV made United and offer it couldn’t refuse. And since this is an LOI, there’s no guarantee that even this will happen. Hopefully the coming months will bring us more on the direction that United is going to take.

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