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SpaceX’s Starlink sees the in-flight internet market as ripe for an overhaul, executive says

A passenger plane takes off from Frankfurt Airport. The aviation industry is particularly hard hit by the effects of the global Corona pandemic.
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WASHINGTON – Elon Musk’s SpaceX believes an aviation-specific antenna may be revolutionary for connecting Starlink, its global high-speed internet service, with airplanes.

“Connectivity on airplanes is something that we believe is ripe for an overhaul,” SpaceX vice president Jonathan Hofeller said Monday at the Satellite 2022 conference here.

In-flight connectivity is a market that SpaceX has talked about disrupting since the company began offering Starlink service. Hofeller said that air travel passengers’ expectations for internet service “has changed faster than the technology has changed,” creating an opportunity for Starlink.

“Our approach to connectivity in the sky is much like it is at home: You walk into your house and the internet just works. It’s simple. It’s high speed,” Hofeller said.

Airlines work with satellite broadband providers for inflight Wi-Fi, with Viasat and Intelsat – the latter of which purchased Gogo’s commercial aviation business – two such companies that add connectivity on flights by airlines including Delta, JetBlue, American Airlines and United. But, while existing services use satellites in distant orbits, Starlink satellites orbit closer to the Earth and could boost the speeds that passengers see in-flight. Additionally, the global mesh of Starlink satellites would mean aircraft could connect to the internet without disruption.

“We believe in a future where connectivity is abundant, you’re not scrapping for kilobits per second here. It’s so much that people get on the plane and they stream just like they do in their home, so we’re designing a service that every single passenger on that plan can stream simultaneously if need be,” Hofeller said.

SpaceX is testing aviation-specific Starlink terminals, also known as satellite antennas, on aircraft. Hofeller emphasized that SpaceX is also currently “going through the certifications” to get the terminals approved with a variety of aircraft, a regulatory hurdle to entering the in-flight connectivity market.

A batch of Starlink satellites deploy in orbit after a launch on Nov. 13, 2021.

A conference attendee, who identified as an employee of aircraft builder Embraer, asked for more details. Hofeller said SpaceX is working to make the Starlink terminals “smaller and lighter,” but didn’t say more beyond that. Hofeller invited the Embraer representative to talk with SpaceX privately “about the technology we have on the aviation side.”

SpaceX has launched about 2,000 Starlink satellites to date to support its global network.

Hofeller said that SpaceX currently has about 250,000 total Starlink subscribers, a number which includes both consumers and enterprise customers. Starlink users pay $99 a month for the standard service and $500 a month for the premium tier.

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