Tested: Elon Musk’s Starlink micro-satellite system for in-flight WiFi

SpaceX wants to show the world that its Starlink satellite system can stream Netflix and YouTube from 30,000 feet. For example, he recently hosted a demonstration for the media aboard a jet operated by his first airline customer, regional carrier JSX.

The short jaunt from Burbank to San Jose, Calif., marks the start of Elon Musk’s bid to seize the inflight business of satellite providers Intelsat and Viasat that already serve thousands of planes.

During the JSX test flight, the Starlink system consistently recorded transmission capabilities in excess of 100 Mbps, as measured by the Ookla app, a testing service.

While there were around a dozen people on board, additional devices on board increased demand to the equivalent of 20 to 30 passengers using the system.

“I’m thrilled,” said JSX CEO Alex Wilcox, who was on the flight over California trying to surf the web and call WhatsApp on the system. “It exceeded my expectations.”

A few days after the test flight, a cross-country trip on an American Airlines Airbus complete with Viasat equipment and over 100 passengers delivered about 2.2 megabits per second.

On both flights, Netflix and YouTube videos ran smoothly and two-way video chats worked well via WhatsApp. On each plane, emails were received and sent with ease, another selling point — or maybe not — for those who remember air travel as a refuge from work.

Passengers board a JSX jet at Hollywood Burbank Airport in Burbank, California.

Starlink, part of Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp, provides broadband from a constellation of small, low-flying satellites.

The lower satellites circle the planet in 90 to 120 minutes. This is a departure from the established practice of using a few powerful spacecraft in higher, slower orbits. An advantage for Starlink is that its signals arrive earlier.

This is a plus for the company’s core business of providing broadband to predominantly rural households in sparsely populated areas. Starlink has launched more than 3,000 satellites and serves more than 400,000 subscribers, the company said in recent filings.

But a downside to Musk’s technology is that smaller satellites have less capacity and can struggle to meet the needs of large planes in crowded skies.

Dozens of airliners swarm travel hubs, with each plane carrying 100 or more connected passengers.

Because satellites orbit the globe, only a few can serve an area like Atlanta and its busy airport, raising capacity questions, B. Riley Financial said in a note last year. SpaceX said the projections underestimate how quickly the system is changing.

The challenges of ever-evolving technology

US regulators recently cited Starlink’s “technology still in development” when they refused the service for an $866 million government grant.

Starlink says it can serve planes of all sizes and cites an agreement with Hawaiian Airlines’ parent company to serve large Airbus and Boeing planes.

As for the rejection of the grant, the company said it was unfairly rejected by officials who judged current data speeds rather than the faster service envisioned when building the Celestial Network.

“You have to make it work, and you have to get it cheap,” said Chris Quilty, partner at space and satellite industry consultant Quilty Analytics. “It’s a very complex market. And airlines have always been extremely cautious.

Starlink executives know they have their work cut out for them.

“There are a lot of challenges to get to where we want to be,” said Jonathan Hofeller, Starlink’s vice president of commercial sales. “It will take time for people to adopt the mentality of JSX and Starlink.”

The company’s deals with JSX and Hawaiian, announced in April, came after SpaceX pitched Starlink to four of America’s biggest airlines, without success, according to people familiar with the matter.

“It’s a foot in the door for Starlink,” said telecoms analyst Roger Entner. “It’s proof of concept. Once it works on JSX it will work everywhere.

Antenna the size of a pizza box

Part of the attraction for JSX was Starlink’s flat antenna, not much larger than a large pizza box. It is less bulky than the pivoting dishes widely used by other satellite services, so it fits atop the bodies of the small Embraer regional jets that JSX flies.

The antenna “is definitely an advantage in terms of winning in-flight connectivity contracts for regional aircraft,” said Louie DiPalma, analyst at William Blair & Co. The company does business with Viasat.

In the coming years, airlines could upgrade more than 1,000 planes in regional fleets from slow legacy internet systems, and Starlink is “one of the leading candidates” to win such contracts, DiPalma said.

“Are they a serious competitor? Yes,” said Jeff Sare, president of commercial aviation for Intelsat, a leading airline wireless service provider. Still, Sare said, “We don’t think there’s anyone who can beat us.”

Intelsat says it remains the largest provider of in-flight services, with about 2,000 aircraft linked by its satellites and about 1,000 aircraft linked by air-to-ground systems that communicate with ground gear.

Viasat says its in-flight system serves around 1,930 aircraft, with agreements to equip a further 1,210 aircraft.

Around 10,000 commercial aircraft already have in-flight wireless connectivity, a number expected to exceed 36,000 by 2031, according to NSR, a satellite and space industry researcher owned by Analysys Mason.

Annual market revenue is expected to reach more than $7.3 billion by 2031, up from $1.9 billion in 2021, NSR said in an email.

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