Elon Musk’s SpaceX has signed its first deal with an airline to provide in-flight WiFi supplied by the Starlink satellite network. The US company is currently vying with rivals to provide high-speed internet to commercial passenger jets and has publicly stated its intention to target trains next.
The deal is to equip Starlink terminals on around 100 JSX “semi private” jets. Neither partner would disclose the financial terms. However, SpaceX has also said that its equipment is in trials with Delta Airlines and that Musk’s company has applied to have its kit certified for Boeing 737s and A320 aircraft. Delta has said it plans to upgrade its in-flight Internet offering this year.
Since 2019, SpaceX has launched over 2,000 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit and currently offers broadband internet to a very limited number of largely rural customers for around US$1,200 a year. In addition to the monthly charges, subscribers have to shell out around US$600 for a terminal dish about the size of two laptops.
In 2021, SpaceX sought regulatory approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to operate Starlink on airplanes, trains and shipping vessels and had previously tested the internet network on a handful of Gulfstream jets, as well as military aircraft.
With typical bravado, Musk, has frequently boasted of SpaceX’s ambitions to connect transport systems with its Starlink satellite constellation. He has made no secret of the fact that he is keen to put Starlink satellite connections onto trains in Europe and North America.
In March last year, the company made its plans more official when it posted a new application with the US FCC to operate vehicle and aircraft mounted Earth Stations. It has permission to launch a total of 4,400 satellites to operate at about 550km (340 miles) above Earth. In 2020, Musk claimed that the company's dishes could be deployed on high-speed moving objects, like trains, because "everything is slow to a phased array antenna”.
According to SpaceX's director of satellite policy, David Goldman, “These user terminals employ advanced phased-array beam-forming and digital processing technologies to make highly efficient use of Ku-band spectrum resources by supporting highly directive, antenna beams that point and track the system's low-Earth orbit satellites.”
Showing that his ambition has at least some boundaries, Musk recently ruled out connecting cars to the Internet using Starlink satellites. “Not connecting Tesla cars to Starlink, as our terminal is much too big.” Musk has been quoted a s saying.
Musk has said SpaceX only intends to serve about 3% of American households. That wouldn't make it a threat to the likes of Verizon or AT&T, but it could give SpaceX an upper hand against traditional satellite providers that serve cruises, the trucking industry and public transport systems.
Satellite communications featured in several projects in the pioneering days of on-train WiFi. GNER, as was, employed it to provide in-fill coverage and terrestrial back-up between 2004 and 2010 and SNCF and Thalys ran satellite links to trains for several years before deciding that the associated operational and maintenance costs were too high.
More recently, however, changes in antenna technology, lower data costs and increased demand for blanket coverage has led to a renewal of interest in what satellites can offer the rail industry. This, combined with a more compatible link-up with emerging 5G services, means that satellite companies are no longer left on the outside looking in.
Satellite connectivity to trains, track-side coverage and new innovations in the rail industry using wireless connectivity will feature heavily in this year’s Traincomms Conference.
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