Elon Musk wants to bring internet connectivity to airliners in flight via Starlink satellites developed by SpaceX.
With this in mind, the technology’s capabilities were recently demonstrated onboard an aircraft operated by American regional airline JSX Air, the first customer to use the service. The flight between Burbank and San Jose, California marked the beginning of the entrepreneur and investor’s bid to run a business led by Intelstat and Viasat, which currently serve thousands of aircraft.
Most satellite Internet services come from individual geostationary satellites orbiting more than 35,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface. Starlink, on the other hand, offers broadband connectivity from a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit. The devices orbit the planet in 90 to 120 minutes. As a result, the data transmission time, known as latency, between the users and the satellites is shorter.
This allows Elon Musk’s company to provide broadband connectivity to rural villages that traditionally haven’t had access to this type of service. Indeed, this is the stated primary goal of Starlink, which aims 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 lead to difficulties in providing signals for long routes with heavy air traffic. SpaceX says the speed at which the system is developing could offer big improvements in the short term.
Recently, U.S. regulators labeled Stalink’s satellites “a technology that is still in development” when they turned down an $866 million federal grant for the service. However, as an example of industry confidence, the company cited its agreement last April with Hawaiian Airlines under which it will service its aircraft.
The test flight
Transmission speeds of over 100 megabits per second were measured during the test flight last week, which is well above 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, join video calls from instant messaging platforms and surf online freely.
While there were only twelve people on the plane, the use of other equipment increased demand to peak levels corresponding to a twenty to thirty passenger flight. It seems small compared to the nearly three hundred or more people that a wide-bodied airliner can carry. However, the technology is evolving rapidly and the short-term outlook is very positive.
“I’m thrilled,” said Alex Wilcox, CEO of JSX Air, while testing the inflight internet service. “It exceeded my expectations,” he assured.
The implementation of Starlink’s satellite service in Hawaiian Airlines’ fleet could be an important new step in the adoption of this type of connectivity by major airlines. The airline said it will be fitting its Airbus A330-200 and A321-200neo, as well as its future Boeing 787-9, with signal receivers from Elon Musk’s company’s satellites.
See also: Hawaiian Airlines offers free internet on board