SpaceX In Talks With Airlines for In-Flight Wi-Fi

Previously, Elon Musk said that SpaceX was working on Starlink terminals that could be mounted to large vehicles like airplanes, buses, and RVs with the goal of making its satellite Internet service more available to people while in transit. Now the company is in talks with several major airlines to provide onboard Wi-Fi for passengers.

“We have our own aviation product in development,” SpaceX VP of Starlink and commercial sales Jonathan Hofeller said during the Connected Aviation Intelligence Summit on Wednesday. “All in all, passengers and customers want a great experience that [geostationary] systems simply cannot provide.”

Elon Musk has indicated that demand for Starlink is already high, especially among populations that have lacked affordable, reliable high-speed Internet backed by good customer service. He especially said that other Internet service providers have been giving Starlink a hassle with regulators acting as a referee because they did not like the idea of having competition. For instance, when ViaSat filed a complaint with regulators over environmental concerns related to Starlink, he had this to say:

That does not mean that SpaceX is going to rush out a product that just isn’t ready. Hofeller said of it:

“People want to see the hardware, they want to see the constellation, and so we’re driving that hard as fast as we can. … Hopefully sooner rather than later.”

Last year, SpaceX filed for approval to test Starlink terminals that have been modified for use in the aviation industry on five Gulfstream aircraft. In March, the company filed plans with the FCC to launch Starlink-based Earth Stations in Motion, which would enable the use of Wi-Fi for transportation options like public transit buses.

The plans for bringing Starlink’s Internet service to the aviation industry include the implementation of laser-based communications that can enable satellites to “talk” to one another without having to use a ground station as an intermediary. This will enable Starlink satellites to “hand off” their connections to terminals mounted to aircraft to one another with very few noticeable delays in the signal. The U.S. Department of Defense recently tapped SpaceX to launch a test of this technology for its own space-based communications assets.

SpaceX aims to bring Starlink out of beta by the end of the year and has been frequently launching new Starlink satellites to reach the minimum number of satellites needed for global coverage. It currently has nearly 1,800 Starlink satellites in orbit out of a planned constellation of up to 42,000.

It recently received approval from the FCC to launch some of the satellites into a lower orbit to meet demand for low-latency satellite Internet over the objections of competitors like OneWeb, who say that it increases the chance of a Starlink satellite colliding with a competitor’s satellite that is being launched. SpaceX has disputed OneWeb’s claim that one of Starlink’s satellites nearly collided with a OneWeb satellite during launch earlier this year.

Neither SpaceX nor any of the airlines have put a firm timeline on when any deal to bring Starlink Internet service to airline passengers would be finalize or when passengers might start seeing Starlink satellites mounted to airplanes while at the airport. At the Connected Aviation Intelligence Summit, there were hints that Starlink’s competitors were working on the same thing.

OneWeb VP of Mobility Services Ben Griffin indicated that OneWeb might have a similar service ready “by the middle of next year, maybe sooner.”

SpaceX may be learning to be a little more cautious when setting a timeline, especially considering that Elon Musk has over-promised and under-delivered in that department in the past. In the near future, though, airline passengers may be able to enjoy complimentary or low-cost Wi-Fi during their flight.