Connectivity

Starlink struck its first in-flight Wi-Fi deals. Here’s what it means

Satellite broadband could offer quick in-flight internet speeds, but it faces regulatory and cost challenges.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

For anyone who has ever paid for in-flight wi-fi and been disappointed with their inability to stream movies on their computer, now Elon Musk has a plan for that, too.

In late April, SpaceX’s Starlink announced partnerships with both Hawaiian Airlines and charter carrier JSX to provide in-flight wi-fi on its airliners. And, earlier in April, the CEO of Delta Airlines also mentioned that the company was running “exploratory tests” on the viability of Starlink’s satellites in the air. These were the company’s first-ever forays into the airline space, and they could reshape the airline industry’s relationship with satellite internet providers.

As of now, in-flight wi-fi is dominated by legacy geostationary earth orbit (GEO) satellite companies like Viasat, Intelsat, and Inmarsat. Overall, the US satellite internet market is estimated to be a $5.7 billion market in 2022, per IBISWorld.

According to Chris Quilty, founder of space and satellite investment research firm Quilty Analytics, Starlink—and low Earth orbit (LEO) providers like it—offer some advantages over GEO providers, like more consistent and robust coverage. A full-fledged LEO constellation could offer stronger connection, he said, because GEO services have fewer satellites in orbit and more blind spots. But those potential benefits could also come with steep monetary and regulatory costs.

Quilty said that while Starlink has the ability to negotiate directly with airlines to implement its antennae, it faces significant roadblocks, like getting FAA approval to install its antennae on planes, which are much less durable than current models on board planes.

Hawaiian Airlines said it will begin installing Starlink on select aircraft next year, but Quilty said Starlink is likely only deploying its antennae under an experimental license, as the process to get approval from the FAA to deploy wide-scale could be two years, “under a good scenario.”

“Starlink will be responsible for any regulatory approvals and the engineering certification required to install their terminals on our aircraft. We don’t have a full rollout plan, but expect to begin equipping some of our aircraft with Starlink Wi-Fi starting next year,” Hawaiian Airlines director of external communications Alex Da Silva told Emerging Tech Brew in an email.

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Starlink did not return a request for comment.

“So the challenge is…any time you want to put a piece of hardware, even a new piece of fucking carpet, inside the airplane, you’re gonna spend a couple of years getting FAA approval,” Quilty said. “In the case of the antennas, it’s worse than that, because you’re drilling a hole through the pressure hole, or the airplane to run cables and whatnot.”

Quilty also said that airplane manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing could be reluctant to install Starlink antennae on the manufacturing line, due to longstanding relationships with GEO operators like Viasat, Intelsat, and Inmarsat, and that it will be more expensive for airlines to install the equipment on their own, aftermarket.

“The Holy Grail for anyone that wants to get into this in-flight connectivity business, [is] you actually want to get what’s called ‘line fit,’ and line fit means that Airbus and Boeing just install it right in the factory, not in aftermarket,” Quilty said.

Quilty said the full cost for installing an in-flight connectivity system typically ranges from $750k to $1 million, not including the cost of taking planes out of commission for several days in order to do so.

Zoom out: Starlink’s vice president of commercial sales Jonathan Hofeller reported Starlink had 250,000 subscribers in March 2022, and the onset of the war in Ukraine added an extra ~150,000 users due to Russia’s destruction of telecommunications in the country.

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