There’s no faster way to win the hearts and minds of the people than by bringing them fast, reliable internet on an aeroplane. Elon Musk knows this, and that’s maybe why his space company, SpaceX, is reportedly in talks with “several” airlines in a bid to provide their crafts with WiFi via the company’s growing internet satellite network, Starlink.
On Wednesday, Jonathan Hofeller — SpaceX’s VP of Starlink and commercial sales — told a panel at the Connected Aviation Intelligence Summit that the company is forging ahead with its plans to shift its satellite-linked broadband network from servicing predominantly rural homes to more commercial interests by the end of 2021.
“We’re in talks with several of the airlines,” Hofeller told the panel. “We have our own aviation product in development … we’ve already done some demonstrations to date, and looking to get that product finalised to be put on aircraft in the very near future.”
SpaceX began a beta rollout of its Starlink satellites in 2018 in order to cover a global dearth of broadband internet connections, particularly in rural areas where fibre connections generally aren’t readily available. Under the beta plan, most Starlink customers pay a one-time fee of $US499 ($640) for a bundle that includes a self-aligning Starlink dish and Wi-Fi router, and then $US99 ($127) per month for monthly internet services after that. In the years since it first launched, the company has launched nearly 1,800 Starlink satellites out of the 4,400 it estimates it would need in order to provide global coverage.
Starlink’s internet service relies on a model of low Earth orbit, wherein its satellite clusters sit closer to the planet than the far-flung geostationary orbits of the larger internet satellites that typically provide internet service to commercial planes. It’s technology that’s currently being trumpeted by executives as the main reason potential clients should choose Starlink over its outmoded rivals — and it’s also the same technology currently being utilised by a growing pack of competitors. Amazon recently announced plans for a 3,000 satellite-strong low orbit mega-constellation of its own, and the UK’s OneWeb has already launched 182 of a roughly 640 planned satellites.
“All in all, passengers and customers want a great experience that [geostationary] systems simply cannot provide,” Hofeller said on the panel. “So it’s going to be up to the individual airline whether they want to be responsive to that, or if they’re ok with having a system that is not as responsive to their customers’ demand.”