Qantas and Virgin Australia's inflight internet WiFi battle

Inflight internet has become the latest battleground in the aerial dogfight between Qantas and Virgin Australia.

With both airlines set to flick the switch on their sky-high WiFi systems , here's a quick primer on how Qantas and Virgin Australia will seek to keep you connected above the clouds.

When does it start?

Qantas and Virgin Australia will both begin three-month trials of inflight internet this month, each on a single Boeing 737.

That should come as no surprise: the nimble single-aisle Boeing jet is the workhorse of each airline's domestic fleet, and Qantas and Virgin are keen to underscore that this is a 'beta test' of the technology before the platform is locked down for fleet-wide fit-out.

Where can I use it?

The WiFi-equipped Boeing 737s will mostly zip along popular east coast routes between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, also known as the 'triangle'.

You could also spot it flying further afield – even to Perth, where internet access could prove especially useful during those five or so hours in the middle of the working day.

However, there's no way to know in advance if your Qantas or Virgin flight will be on the WiFi jet before you book.

It'll depend on how those jets are shuffled around the network from one airport to the next.

That said, we'd expect that announcements will be made at the departures gate and possibly alongside the flight's boarding call in the lounge.


How much will it cost?

Internet access will be free on the Qantas and Virgin Australia jets during the three-month trial period.

Qantas says its Qantas WiFi service will remain free once the rest of the Boeing 737s and Airbus A330s are upgraded with the satellite tech and has ruled out a two-tier 'slow for free, fast for a fee' system.

Virgin Australia hasn't revealed its pricing plans but is believed to be leaning towards letting travellers choose between two levels of service: a basic connection suitable for web browsing, email and social media, and a high-speed pipeline for streaming video from the likes of Netflix.

In a survey sent to selected Virgin Australia passengers last month, Virgin pitched a basic connection at $8-$14 per flight with the high-speed alternative at $15-$21 per flight.

However, Virgin also allowed that "on some flights the price could be free, or the first 30 minutes could be free."

Internet access could be also offered free to business class passengers and Velocity Platinum frequent flyers.

How fast will it be?

Get ready for a war of words – or rather, numbers – between Qantas and Virgin Australia on who has the fastest connection.

Qantas is no doubt going to win that skirmish, because the NBN's Sky Muster satellites which Qantas will use were designed around the very latest super-fast Ka technology.

Ka is literally 'inflight broadband', able to serve 7-12Mbps to every passenger on the plane – that's as fast as most home Internet connections.

And with Qantas promising a 'free for all' approach, they'll need that bandwidth to satisfy a planeload of punters.

Virgin's inflight internet service will be powered by an Optus D2 satellite running on the older and more crowded Ku band, although the use of special '2Ku' antenna effectively doubles the throughput to achieve speeds up to 70Mbps per aircraft.

This will however be split between every connected device on the plane, in the same way that a single home Internet connection has to be shared between the whole family.

As a result, if 20 passengers were online at the same time, that 70Mbps signal would average out at 3.5Mbps for each passenger – not exactly greased lightning, but still sufficient to stream Netflix in standard definition onto your smartphone, tablet or laptop.

And to be honest, who needs HD video on screens that small?

But the crunch will come if, say, 60 passengers on Virgin's Boeing 737 – about one-third of the plane's capacity – are online at the same time. That'll see the average signal-per-device drop to barely 1Mbps.

Virgin says that actual speeds will dynamically scale to suit each person's usage. Somebody reading a website or their email will have their connection temporarily idled so that additional speed can be handed to another passenger watching streaming video or downloading a large email attachment.

We don't know how this will actually play out until the test flights begin and then, across months of real-world usage.

There's no argument that Qantas won't win the speed test. That said, my take on this is that the best Internet speed isn't a raw number – it's not 4Mbps, 8Mbps or 15Mbps.

The best speed is simply "fast enough" for whatever you want to do: be that web browsing, email, social networking or streaming music or video.

If the WiFi signal fast enough and reliable throughout the flight for every passenger who wants it, the numbers themselves are largely meaningless.

When will it be on every flight?

After the public trials finish mid-year, Qantas and Virgin Australia will move to kit out the rest of their domestic fleets – but that's a long process, and will take until the middle of next year at the earliest.

Even so, don't expect it to be on every flight. For example, Qantas has yet to decide if it will outfit the smaller QantasLink regional jets such as the Boeing 717 and Bombardier Dash 8 Q400s.

Qantas and Virgin Australia will also focus first on their domestic routes before adding overseas flights into the mix.

Virgin has a slight edge here because the footprint of its Optus satellite extends to New Zealand, so trans-Tasman flights could be online in early 2018.

Of course, many international airlines flying into and out of Australia already offer sky-high WiFi: these include Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways, Qatar, United and American Airlines, Scoot and, on its new Airbus A350s, Cathay Pacific.

Will you be using inflight WiFi, and will it change the way you fly? Let us know in the comments section.

Few people spend more time on planes, in lounges or mulling over the best ways to use frequent flyer points than David Flynn, the editor of . His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of 51698009 readers.