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Starlink could save us from crappy airline Wi-Fi

Starlink satellite tracker image in focus on phone with Starlink logo in background
(Image credit: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

SpaceX’s satellite internet system, Starlink, may soon be providing faster broadband to airlines it has announced. During a conference call, the vice president of commercial sales confirmed that Elon Musk's satellite internet company was in talks with airlines to bring the service to aircrafts and that a specific aviation product was in the works.  

The Verge reports that Jonathan Hofeller said “We’re in talks with several of the airlines, we have our own aviation product in development… we’ve already done some demonstrations to date, and looking to get that product finalized to be put on aircraft in the very near future.”

For airlines, this is big news. The current systems in place use either ground-to-plane towers, that require a plane to be over a landmass or traditional geostationary satellites which have worse latency, are costly and can’t offer the same bandwidth. Air-to-ground, or ATG, systems are capped at around 10mbps while traditional satellites can only offer 100mbps. Starlink could double that data rate, potentially offering far faster speeds than are currently available.  

SpaceX has some hurdles to leap before it can officially launch a product. Firstly, it needs FCC approval to use the system in moving vehicles, but there are some technological problems to solve too. For one, when a plane is out of range of ground stations, the satellite network would need to be able to pass signals in space. This functionality is coming via a laser-link between Starlink satellites as the company puts more hardware in space. The first satellites supporting the laser link launched at the start of this year. 

SpaceX plans to use 4,100 satellites in its finished constellation, which will allow it to provide service nearly anywhere on Earth. It’s currently got just under 2,000 satellites orbiting, with each launch putting around 60 more in a low Earth orbit. The company is currently offering its beta service in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. 

Starlink has drawn some criticism from astronomers who are concerned about the enormous number of LEO satellites being launched. Starlink’s 4,000 satellites could be joined by another 3,000 from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ venture and 640 designed to service the U.K.’s OneWeb, which aims to support locations north of the 50th parallel this year, and the whole world by the end of 2022. That’s 7,500 boxes flying around and making stargazing more challenging. 

Other companies, like long-running Viasat, are also looking at beefing up its own networks, and planning a launch of an additional 300 LEO satellites too. It has done a deal with Delta that will see it launch on as many as 300 of the company’s aircraft. 

A tech journalist with many years of experience, Ian got his start writing about the battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray. Technology might have moved on, but there's still plenty of skirmishes to report on.