No matter how quick our home internet and mobile data speeds get, the internet service we pay for on our flights never seems to improve. That might not be the case for much longer, as The Verge reports that Elon Musk’s space transportation company SpaceX is currently in talks with “several” airlines to provide its Starlink satellite internet network on planes.
According to The Verge, Jonathan Hofeller, Vice President of Starlink Commercial Sales at SpaceX, told attendees at the Connected Aviation Intelligence conference this week that the company already has an aviation product in the works, and plans to bring it to airlines “very soon.”
“We’re in talks with several of the airlines,” Hofeller said on Wednesday. “We have our own aviation product in development… we’ve already done some demonstrations to date, and looking to get that product finalized to be put on aircraft in the very near future.”
As of late May, SpaceX has launched more than 1,700 satellites into orbit as part of Starlink. Hundreds of thousands have signed up for the Starlink beta, during which users can expect to receive download speeds between 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s. It costs $99 per month to access the beta service, but you’ll also need to pay $499 for Starlink Kit, which includes the Starlink, Wi-Fi router, power supply, cables, and mounting tripod. The Starlink also needs a clear view of the sky to connect.
During his panel discussion, Hofeller said that the design of the airline antennas that SpaceX will use for inflight Wi-Fi will be similar to those within the consumer terminals, but “with obvious enhancements for aviation connectivity.” These antennas will also be designed and built by SpaceX, and it will be possible for them to link up with ground stations to communicate with the company’s satellites.
When airplanes are flying over large bodies of water, where there aren’t any ground stations in range, Starlink will depend on inter-satellite connectivity that uses lasers to link satellites, which Hofeller refers to this as “the next generation of our constellation.”
SpaceX is entering a field with plenty of competition, as The Verge notes. Both Intelsat and Viasat currently operate networks of satellites in geostationary orbit, and Viasat announced earlier this year that Delta Airlines had selected its Ka-band satellite in-flight connectivity solution for more than 300 planes in its fleet. Viasat technology will be deployed this summer, but SpaceX doesn’t appear to be concerned.
“All in all, passengers and customers want a great experience that [geostationary] systems simply cannot provide,” said Hofeller. “So it’s going to be up to the individual airline whether they want to be responsive to that, or if they’re okay with having a system that is not as responsive to their customers’ demand.”