Elon Musk Wants To Bring You Better In-Flight WiFi


SpaceX has plans to use its low-Earth orbit Starlink satellites to offer in-flight WiFi for “several” airlines. Just don’t ask when.

SpaceX 计划使用其低地球轨道 Starlink 卫星为“几家”航空公司提供机上 WiFi。 只是不要问什么时候。

  • SpaceX has plans to use its low-Earth orbit Starlink satellites to offer in-flight WiFi for “several” airlines.
  • SpaceX 计划使用其低地球轨道 Starlink 卫星为“几家”航空公司提供机上 WiFi。
  • Most airlines do already offer in-flight WiFi, usually for a fee, but it’s more primitive.
  • 大多数航空公司已经提供机上 WiFi,通常是收费的,但它更原始。
  • There’s no timeline for the Starlink airline project yet, but when it does go live, it will significantly expand Starlink’s terrestrial WiFi coverage.
  • Starlink 航空公司项目目前还没有时间表,但当它上线时,它将显着扩大 Starlink 的地面 WiFi 覆盖范围。

Elon Musk—via Starlink, a division of SpaceX—is in talks with “several” airlines to provide in-flight WiFi for passengers. His plan is to use Starlink’s ever-growing megaconstellation of satellites to equip customers with better WiFi while they fly the friendly skies.

埃隆马斯克通过 SpaceX 的一个部门 Starlink 正在与“几家”航空公司进行谈判,为乘客提供机上 WiFi。 他的计划是使用 Starlink 不断增长的巨无霸卫星网为客户在友好的天空中飞行时提供更好的 WiFi。

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Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX’s vice president of Starlink and commercial sales, gave out details on the ambitious plan during a panel at the Connected Aviation Intelligence Summit on Wednesday.

“We’re in talks with several of the airlines,” Hofeller said during that panel, according to The Verge.”[W]e’ve already done some demonstrations to date, and looking to get that product finalized to be put on aircraft in the very near future.”

Beyond the airline application, people in remote areas already rely on satellite internet as their only option for high-speed connectivity. One of the current industry leaders, Hughes, employs a small number of satellites to provide internet access to about 25 million people. Its internet offerings could soon pale in comparison to Starlink’s; SpaceX has already launched about 1,800 of the 4,400 satellites it needs to deploy its high-speed connection.

How does satellite internet even work? Well, in Starlink’s case, SpaceX has used rockets to launch dozens of satellites at a time into low-Earth orbit (within a 1,200-mile altitude). Folks who have signed up for Starlink’s public beta program each have a special Starlink satellite dish that can align itself with the 1,800 satellites orbiting Earth.

Starlink notes on its sales website that it’s normal for beta users to experience signal blackouts, which illustrates just how nascent the program is. Still, tens of thousands of users have signed up. It’s a smart way to soft-launch a product, while still soliciting tons of critical user feedback as development continues.

So how will Starlink’s WiFi service work in the skies? It’s both harder and easier to make happen, depending on your criteria. Hofeller said that SpaceX will design and fabricate new antennas for the airline industry, similar to the ones Starlink already uses for ground internet service, but “with obvious enhancements for aviation connectivity.”

These antennas, outfitted on planes, will communicate with ground stations that link up with Starlink satellites. That’s great for a flight from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, but cause for concern if you’re boarding a transatlantic flight—after all, there aren’t exactly satellite base stations installed in the middle of the ocean. So, Starlink satellites will have to communicate with one another, rather than rely on a connection with ground stations.

Today’s in-flight WiFi faces similar issues. There are two primary options that airliners use to provide internet to customers, both of which begin on the ground. First is “air-to-ground WiFi,” which uses cellphone towers to nab a signal, similarly to how your smartphone pings 4G or 5G base stations. Just think of the airplane like a giant smartphone operating as a hotspot.

The second option for airplanes is satellite internet, wherein a signal beams from the ground and bounces from a satellite to the airplane, in the same way that Starlink and Hughes provide WiFi to home users. By using a high number of satellites, and installing interconnectivity functionality between those satellites, Starlink will change the game for transatlantic flights, where coverage has traditionally been spotty or slow due to the distance the signal must travel.

Unfortunately, we have no timeline for when Starlink’s new airline coverage will go online. “When the announcement will be? To be determined. Don’t know. Hopefully sooner rather than later,” Hofeller said.

Meanwhile, rival satellite internet company OneWeb was happy to announce its timeline for in-flight WiFi, which is sometime in the middle of 2022. But then again, Elon Musk has always operated on his own schedule.

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