The team behind Starlink, SpaceX’s growing satellite Internet network, is in talks with “several” airlines to beam Internet to their planes, the project’s vice president said at a conference panel on Wednesday. Expanding Starlink from rural homes to airlines is an expected step for Elon Musk’s space company as it races to commercially open the broadband network later this year.
“We are in talks with several airlines,” Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX’s VP of Starlink and commercial sales, told a panel at the Connected Aviation Intelligence Summit on Wednesday. “We have our own aerospace product in development … we’ve already done some demonstrations so far and we want to finalize that product to be placed on aircraft in the very near future.”
Since 2018, SpaceX has launched nearly 1,800 Starlink satellites of the approximately 4,400 it needs to provide broadband internet coverage worldwide, primarily for rural homes where fiber connections are not available. The company is in the midst of a Starlink beta phase promising up to 100Mbps download and 20Mbps upload speeds, with tens of thousands of users to date. Most pay $99 a month for internet under that beta, using a $499 bundle of a self-aligning Starlink dish and Wi-Fi router.
Last year, SpaceX submitted plans to tests Starlink on five Gulfstream jets. And in March, SpaceX sought FCC approval to use Starlink with so-called Earth Stations in Motion — industry jargon to refer to basically any vehicle that would receive a signal, including cars, trucks, ocean-going vessels and airplanes. Musk clarified on Twitter at the time: “Tesla cars don’t connect to Starlink, because our terminal is way too big. This is for planes, ships, large trucks and RVs.” Another FCC filing last Friday sought approval for testing in five US states of an updated square antenna receiver, a basic design commonly associated with aircraft antennas.
Hofeller said the design for SpaceX’s aviation antennas will be very similar to the technology in its consumer terminals, but “with marked improvements for aviation connectivity.” Like those consumer antennas, the aviation hardware will be designed and built by SpaceX, he said. The aerials in the air can be linked to ground stations to communicate with Starlink satellites.
Providing Starlink connectivity to aircraft flying over remote parts of the ocean, far from ground stations, will require intersatellite links — a capability where satellites talk to each other using laser links without first bouncing signals from ground stations. “The next generation of our constellation, which is at work, will have this inter-satellite connectivity,” Hofeller said.
Competition is fierce between Musk’s Starlink network and the growing industry of low-Earth orbit satellite Internet providers. New competitors include the so-called mega-constellations of Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, which has not yet launched any of its planned 3,000 satellites, and Britain’s OneWeb, which has launched 182 satellites of about 640 planned. All of those satellites will be in low Earth orbit, a domain beneath the more distant geostationary orbits of larger Internet satellites that currently provide Internet services to commercial aircraft.
Established U.S. competitors for onboard internet are Intelsat and ViaSat, which orbit satellite networks in geosynchronous orbit. ViaSat recently announced plans to deploy its next-generation satellite network on Delta’s main fleet. The California-based company is planning its own 300 satellite network in low Earth orbit, as well as a new geostationary trio that will launch early next year. It is already a diehard competitor to SpaceX. ViaSat has threatened to sue the Federal Communications Commission for failing to conduct an environmental investigation into a recent Starlink modification.
SpaceX seems confident it can survive the more established competition. “Overall, passengers and customers want a great experience that [geostationary] systems simply can’t provide it,” Hofeller said at the panel. “So it will be up to the individual airline whether they want to respond to that, or whether they’re okay with having a system that doesn’t respond that way to their customers’ demand.”
OneWeb, which was pulled out of bankruptcy last year by the British government and Indian telecom giant Bharti Global, also focuses on in-flight internet services with its constellation and is much more public with his plans than SpaceX. Asked by the panel moderator when customers can expect in-flight internet with one of the competing satellite networks currently growing in low-Earth orbit, OneWeb’s VP of mobility services Ben Griffin estimated “the middle of next year…maybe earlier.” ” Airlines want to see developed hardware and services that work first, he added.
“We’ve been in talks with airlines for quite some time, so there’s no lack of interest,” Griffin said during the same panel. SpaceX’s Hofeller was hesitant when asked the question, “What Ben said is correct. People want to see the hardware, they want to see the constellation, so we drive as fast as we can. When is the announcement? To be determined. Do not know. Hopefully sooner rather than later.”