Elon Musk wants to provide internet connectivity to commercial planes in flight via Starlink satellites, developed by SpaceX.
To this end, the capabilities of the technology were recently demonstrated on board an aircraft of the American regional airline JSX Air, the first customer to use the service. The flight from Burbank to San Jose, Calif., marked the start of the entrepreneur and investor’s bid to lead a company run by Intelstat and Viasat, which currently serve thousands of aircraft.
Most satellite Internet services originate from single geostationary satellites orbiting more than 35,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Starlink, on the other hand, provides high-speed connectivity from a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit. The devices circle the planet in 90 to 120 minutes. As a result, the data transfer time between users and satellites, called latency, is shorter.
In this way, Elon Musk’s company can provide a broadband connection in rural villages that traditionally did not have access to this type of service. This is in fact the primary stated goal of Starlink, which seeks to bring connectivity to inaccessible areas and provide competitive services where other providers already operate.
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However, one of the weaknesses of small satellites is their lower capacity, which can cause difficulties in providing a signal for large aircraft flying over busy air traffic routes. SpaceX says the speed at which the system is evolving could offer big short-term improvements.
Recently, US regulators called Stalink’s satellites a “technology still in development” by rejecting an $866 million government subsidy to the service. However, the company pointed to its agreement last April with Hawaiian Airlines, from which it will provide service to its planes, as an example of industry confidence.
The test flight
During last week’s test flight, transmission speeds in excess of 100 megabits per second were recorded, which is considerably higher than the current commercial aircraft average. The Ookla app measured the speed, which was more than enough to stream videos from on-demand content platforms, as well as participate in video calls from instant messaging platforms and browse freely online.
While there were only twelve people on board the aircraft, the use of other aircraft increased demand to peaks equivalent to a flight carrying twenty to thirty passengers. That seems small compared to the nearly three hundred or more people a jumbo jet can accommodate. However, the technology is changing rapidly and the short-term outlook is very positive.
“I’m thrilled,” said Alex Wilcox, CEO of JSX Air, during the in-flight internet service test. “He exceeded my expectations,” he said.
The introduction of Starlink’s satellite service on the Hawaiian Airlines fleet could be another major step towards the adoption of this type of connectivity by major airlines. The carrier has announced that it will equip its Airbus A330-200 and A321-200neo, as well as its future Boeing 787-9, with receivers of signals from Elon Musk’s company satellites.
See also: Hawaiian Airlines will offer free in-flight internet