Welcome to the WiFi Wars: Battle of the Australian heavy weights

21 April, 2017

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Australia's first ever, WiFi Wars. The ultimate battle for supremacy and gloating rights as the inflight entertainment leader in the skies - well the Australian skies anyway. In the red corner, we have the darling of Australian aviation, the flying kangaroo, Qantas. And in the blue corner, Virgin family alumni and LCC turned full service carrier, Virgin Australia.

And, for the Australian customer, it's all good news. The two systems our main carriers are trialling are the best and fastest available. The less good news is it will take a while before you get to use it; for now each carrier is trialling it on one aircraft only.

Trial launch dates were just 10 days apart

Both carriers are currently fighting it out to deliver a full service WiFi offering across their entire networks and are neck and neck in the race. Qantas was the first out of the blocks to deliver a beta trial, launching inflight WiFi on a single Boeing 737-800 on 10-Apr-2017. Exactly 10 days later, Virgin Australia launched its own version on the exact same aircraft type. Too close to call.

Beta trial periods and full rollout for the end of 2018

Both carriers are running three month trials to determine the viability of the service and especially the public's reaction to speed and quality. The expectation is that a full rollout across each carrier's entire network will be completed at the end of 2018. Virgin Australia is using the beta trial to finalise its business model after considering customer feedback and the results of the testing period.

Partnerships - Polar opposites, just to make it interesting

Both carriers have partnered with well established brands who should have no issue providing WiFi services across both networks. Qantas announced partnerships with broadband service provider, ViaSat, and the nbn Sky Muster satellite service, while Virgin Australia has enlisted the assistance of Gogo and Optus. As an example, Gogo has successfully provided inflight connectivity for a number of airlines including American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, and Virgin Atlantic. These providers will offer passengers on both Qantas and Virgin Australia incredibly fast connections averaging between 10-15Mbps for all devices. That's more than enough to support full streaming services, and that's lucky because even the services onboard have now been aligned, with both carriers offering access to brands such as Foxtel, Netflix and Stan.

Business model - someone has to pay somewhere?

As mentioned, Virgin Australia is yet to finalise its business model once the service is completely rolled out. This may be the key differential between the two carriers and a major factor in who wins the WiFi Wars. Qantas has already confirmed that once fully launched and implanted, the service will be free of charge, with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce boasting that "No other domestic airline is offering its passengers next-generation WiFi with a commitment that it'll continue to be included in the price of the fare."

This kit is expensive though, so it remains to be seen how the costs will be recouped. For LCCs the refrain was "make a revenue centre out of a cost centre"; it's hard to see that conflict ending in a total net loss.

However, Virgin Australia has hinted at a cost associated with the service, releasing an online survey, asking recipients to answer questions to help the carrier determine what passengers would be willing to pay. Qantas presumably will have a limit (probably for downloads), over which there will be charges.

One question to address is how much value there is in being online on flights of only one hour - which accounts for nearly half of all domestic trips. The positive is that the service can probably be used from gate to gate, so you desperate onliners can tune in as soon as you sit down. That adds about half an hour to elapsed time, so the value improves.

Marketing and PR battle

An interesting little battle is also happening on the side with both carriers making sure they receive the most amount of media coverage as possible. Yesterday (20-Apr-2017), Virgin Australia released a statement announcing the official launch of the beta testing phase and, conveniently Qantas, took the opportunity to resend their original statement as part of their "Your Business Newsletter". Coincidence? I think not.

You probably noticed a theme throughout this article with "both carriers" doing this, and "both carriers" having that. It seems, at the moment anyway, that the battle has to be called a draw. Even the judge's scorecard couldn't identify a winner. Only time will tell which airline wins but that it will come down to customer feedback, speed and especially cost. And customers will be the real winners.