Elon Musk and SpaceX set to provide connectivity to aircraft in flight via Starlink satellites

Agustín Miguens

Elon Musk wants to provide internet connectivity to commercial aircraft in flight via Starlink satellites, developed by SpaceX.

With that goal in mind, the technology’s capabilities were recently demonstrated on board an aircraft of American regional airline JSX Air, the first customer to use the service. The flight between Burbank and San José, California, marked the beginning of the entrepreneur and investor’s bid to lead a business that is being spearheaded by Intelstat and Viasat, which currently serve thousands of aircraft.

Most satellite internet services come from single geostationary satellites orbiting more than 35.000 kilometres above the earth’s surface. Starlink, on the other hand, provides broadband connectivity from a constellation of small satellites located in low earth orbit. The devices circle the planet in 90 to 120 minutes. As a result, the data transfer time between users and the satellites, known as latency, is shorter.

In this way, Elon Musk’s company can provide broadband connection in rural villages that traditionally did not have access to this type of service. This is, in fact, the main stated goal of Starlink, which seeks to bring connectivity to inaccessible areas and provide competitive services where other providers already operate.

However, one of the weaknesses of small satellites lies in their lower capacity, which can lead to difficulties in providing signal for large aircraft flying routes with heavy air traffic. SpaceX says that the speed with which the system is evolving could offer great improvements in the short term.

Recently, United States regulators referred to Stalink’s satellites as a “technology still under development” when rejecting an 866 million dollars government grant to the service. However, the company pointed to its last April agreement with Hawaiian Airlines, from which it will provide the service to its aircraft, as an example of the industry’s confidence.

The test flight

During last week’s test flight, transmission speeds in excess of 100 megabits per second were recorded, which is considerably better than the current average for commercial aircraft. The Ookla application measured the speed, which was more than enough to stream videos from on-demand content platforms, as well as to participate in video calls from instant messaging platforms and browse online freely.

While there were only twelve people on the aircraft, the use of other devices increased demand to peaks equivalent to a flight carrying twenty to thirty passengers. It seems small compared to the nearly three hundred, or more, people that a wide-body aircraft can accommodate. However, the technology is evolving rapidly and the near-term outlook is very positive.

“I am delighted”, said Alex Wilcox, CEO of JSX Air, on testing the in-flight internet service. “It has exceeded my expectations”, he assured.

The implementation of Starlink’s satellite service on Hawaiian Airlines’ fleet could be a major new step towards the adoption of this type of connectivity by large airlines. The carrier said it will equip its Airbus A330-200s and A321-200neo, as well as its future Boeing 787-9s, with signal receivers from Elon Musk’s company’s satellites.

See also: Hawaiian Airlines to offer in-flight internet for free

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