Sunday, September 16, 2007

Satellite TV on Australian Domestic Flights

On my trip back from Launceston on Virgin Blue I noticed that the aircraft had been equipped with their Live2Air Pay TV service. The results were disappointing, but should improve.

This has about a 5 inch standard format (4:3 aspect ratio) screen LCD and a credit card reader in the seat back in front of each passenger and provides 24 channels from Foxtel/Austar Pay TV. This costs $5 for flights up to 2 hours and $10 for those over 2 hours. During taxing a preview of the service is provided and then their user is prompted to swipe their credit card. There is a hump on the top fuselage of the aircraft over the wing, which presumably is the satellite antenna.

On the web site describing the service, Virgin Blue warn that the service might be interrupted during turbulence and banking of the aircraft. However, there were numerous interruptions while the aircraft while was still on the ground before takeoff. It may well be the service actually works better once the aircraft is airborne, in which case the preview on the ground may unnecessarily discourage users. Virgin Blue might be better off providing a prerecorded preview on the ground, before switching to the live service in mid air.

The quality of the image on the seat back screens was adequate and similar to that from pocket LCD TVs. The sound was good. It appears that the airline has replaced the previous recorded audio and video service with the satellite system. This would have the advantage that no maintenance of tapes or disks would be needed. However, the service is limited by the very narrow range of content available Foxtel. Those who are used to many channels of music and other audio entertainment on an aircraft will be disappointed. Also those who don't want to watch what is essentially American TV will be disappointed.

One problem is the misleading name of the system: Live2Air. The term "live to air" indicates that the content is not prerecorded. In fact most of the channels provided by "Live2Air" are prerecorded and not "live to air".

Overall this is an impressive technological accomplishment with limited usefulness, but which should improve with time. The black bezel around the LCD screen is large, indicating a larger screen could be installed in the future. Presumably a better selection of TV and audio content could be provided as the available bandwidth increases or compression of the signal is improved.

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