A SpaceX representative said on Tuesday that the company is testing its ability to provide inflight broadband access to aircraft, according to a report by Bloomberg. VP Jonathan Hofeller told a crowd at the Airline Passenger Experience Association Expo in Long Beach, California, that it will begin offering its services to airlines “as soon as possible.”
A sky-high opportunity
SpaceX will join a crowded field of companies competing to service the in-flight wifi market, which is worth about $3.3 billion per year, according to one estimate. Commercial aircraft have conventionally connected to the internet either through cell towers on the ground or through large satellites in geosynchronous orbit. For example, industry leader ViaSat Inc. operates one satellite over the U.S. and a second satellite that covers most of Canada, the North Atlantic, and parts of Europe. Surprisingly, the company has contracted SpaceX to launch a third satellite next year.
SpaceX is one of a handful of companies that are taking a different approach. Instead of relying on a small number of large satellites, they are building their own “constellations” of small satellites that beam internet from a low-earth orbit. SpaceX launched its first 60 satellites in 2019 and currently has more than 1,800 satellites providing internet access to more than 100,000 terminals in 14 countries. The company plans to eventually launch 30,000 satellites, causing an outcry from astronomers and others who say so many objects will clutter humanity’s view of the night sky.
Elon Musk staunchly denies these claims, saying that SpaceX’s satellites won’t impede the view of the night sky.
There are already 4900 satellites in orbit, which people notice ~0% of the time. Starlink won’t be seen by anyone unless looking very carefully & will have ~0% impact on advancements in astronomy. We need to move telelscopes to orbit anyway. Atmospheric attenuation is terrible. pic.twitter.com/OuWYfNmw0D
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 27, 2019
Experts responded by noting that Musk’s claims were, at best, disingenuous. In an interview with Sky at Night, John McDowell, an astrophysicist from the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who created a simulation of what the completed mega constellation will look like, noted that many of the satellites Musk mentioned are in a higher orbit and don’t contribute to light pollution in the way that SpaceX’s technologies will.
But despite these (and many other) objections, the Starlink project continues to move forward.
Elon Musk isn’t the only high-profile billionaire trying to win a slice of the next-generation satellite internet market. Jeff Bezos’ Amazon has its own satellite-based broadband program. The company’s Project Kuiper plans to launch its first satellites by the end of next year, according to a company press release. Amazon has contracted ABL Space Systems to deliver the satellites into orbit. It plans to build a constellation of 3,236 satellites. British company OneWeb has already launched 182 of a planned 640 satellites.
It is unclear how quickly the companies banking on low-earth orbit constellations will displace established players in the satellite internet market. In January, Delta Airlines selected industry mainstay Viasat to provide Internet access for a large portion of its fleet. Viasat says its forthcoming geostationary satellite will octuple its current capacity. The company also plans to launch its own network of about 300 low-earth orbit satellites.
Will tens of thousands of satellites benefit those of us on Earth? There’s a good chance, according to Mark Buell, the North American regional vice president for the Internet Society, which advocates for an open internet. He told Vox’s Recode that “[i]ncreasing competition in the market over the next few years is likely to drive innovation that will lead to an increase in the quality of service and, ideally, more affordable prices.”