SpaceX’s Starlink in talks with ‘multiple’ airlines for in-flight Wi-Fi

The team behind SpaceX’s growing satellite Internet network, Starlink, is in talks with “several” airlines to deliver the Internet to their planes, the project’s vice president told a conference on Wednesday. Expanding Starlink from rural homes to airlines is an expected move for Elon Musk’s space company as it rushes to commercially open the broadband network later this year.

“We are in talks with several airlines,” Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of Starlink and commercial sales at SpaceX, said Wednesday at the Connected Aviation Intelligence Summit. “We have our own aeronautical product under development… we have already done some demonstrations to date, and we are looking to finalize this product for installation on airplanes in the very near future. “

Since 2018, SpaceX has launched nearly 1,800 of the approximately 4,400 Starlink satellites it needs to provide global high-speed Internet coverage, primarily for rural homes where fiber-optic connections are not available. The company is in the midst of a beta phase of Starlink that promises download speeds of up to 100 Mbps and 20 Mbps, with tens of thousands of users to date. Most pay $ 99 per month for the internet as part of this beta, using a $ 499 bundle of a Starlink auto-aligning satellite dish and Wi-Fi router.

Last year, SpaceX filed plans to testing Starlink on five Gulfstream jets. And in March, SpaceX sought FCC approval to use Starlink with so-called moving earth stations – industry jargon for essentially any vehicle that would receive a signal, including cars, trucks, ships and airplanes. Musk clarified on Twitter at the time, “Don’t connect Tesla cars to Starlink because our terminal is way too big. It’s for airplanes, ships, large trucks, and RVs. Last Friday a Another FCC filing sought approval to test in five US states an updated receiver with a square-shaped antenna, a basic design commonly associated with aircraft antennas.

Hofeller said that the design of SpaceX’s aerial antennas will be very similar to the technology inside its consumer terminals, but “with obvious improvements in aviation connectivity.” Like these mainstream antennas, the aircraft hardware will be designed and built by SpaceX, he said. Airborne antennas could be linked to ground stations to communicate with Starlink satellites.

For Starlink to provide connectivity to planes flying over remote areas of the ocean, far from ground stations, it will require inter-satellite links – a capability in which satellites talk to each other using laser links without first bouncing. signals from ground stations. “The next generation of our constellation, which is in operation, will have this inter-satellite connectivity,” said Hofeller.

SpaceX launched its 29th batch of Starlink satellites from Florida on May 26
Photo by Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Competition is fierce between Musk’s Starlink network and the growing industry of low-orbit satellite ISPs. New competitors include the so-called Amazon mega-constellations of Jeff Bezos, which has yet to launch any of its 3,000 planned satellites, and OneWeb from the UK, which has launched 182 out of around 640 planned satellites. All of these satellites will be in low earth orbit, a domain below the geostationary orbits more distant from the larger Internet satellites that currently provide Internet services to commercial aircraft.

Established US competitors for the in-flight Internet are Intelsat and ViaSat, which operate networks of satellites in geostationary orbit. ViaSat recently announced plans to use its next-generation satellite network on Delta’s main fleet. The California-based company is planning its own network of 300 low-orbiting satellites as well as a new geostationary trio that will begin launching early next year. It is already a fierce competitor of SpaceX. ViaSat threatened to sue the Federal Communications Commission for failing to conduct an environmental review on a recent Starlink modification.

SpaceX seems confident it can outlast the more established competition. “Overall, passengers and customers want a great experience that [geostationary] the systems just can’t deliver, ”Hofeller said on the panel. “So it will be up to the individual airline to decide whether they want to respond to them or whether they agree with a system that doesn’t respond as well to their customers’ demands. “

OneWeb, which was taken out of bankruptcy last year by the UK government and Indian telecommunications giant Bharti Global, is also targeting in-flight internet services with its constellation and has been much more public with its plans as SpaceX. Asked by panel moderator when customers can expect to use the Internet in flight with one of the competing satellite networks currently expanding into low Earth orbit, OneWeb vice president of mobility services Ben Griffin said “half of next year … maybe sooner”. Airlines want to see developed equipment and services that work first, he added.

“We’ve been talking with the airlines for a while, so there’s no lack of interest,” Griffin said on the same panel. SpaceX’s Hofeller was suspicious when the question turned to him – “What Ben said is correct. People want to see the material, they want to see the constellation, and so we’re going as fast as we can. announcement? Be determined. I don’t know. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

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