SpaceX wants to show the world that its Starlink satellite system can offer Netflix and YouTube at 30,000 feet.
So it recently did a media demo aboard a jet operated by its first airline customer, regional carrier JSX.
The brief trip from Burbank to San Jose, California, marks the beginning of Elon Musk’s bid to seize the flight business of satellite providers Intelsat and Viasat Inc., which already serve thousands of aircraft.
It won’t be easy, even for a serial market disruptor like Musk.
“Are they a serious competitor? Yes,” said Jeff Sare, president of commercial aviation for Intelsat, a leading provider of wireless services to airlines.
Still, Sare said, “We don’t think there is anyone who can beat us.”
Starlink, part of Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., offers broadband from a constellation of small, low-flying satellites. The lower satellites circle the planet in 90 to 120 minutes.
That’s 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 sooner.
That’s a boon to the company’s core business of offering broadband primarily to 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 one drawback to Musk’s technology is that small satellites have less capacity and can struggle to meet the needs of large planes in crowded skies.
Dozens of commercial airliners swarm through travel hubs, with each aircraft carrying 100 or more connected passengers.
With satellites flitting around the globe, only a handful may be serving an area like Atlanta and its busy airport, raising questions about capacity, B. Riley Financial said in a note last year.
SpaceX said the projections underestimate how quickly the system is evolving.
US regulators recently cited Starlink’s “still developing technology” when they rejected the service for $866 million. government subsidy.
Starlink says it can serve aircraft of all sizes and cites a agreement with parent Hawaiian Airlines to service large Airbus and Boeing aircraft.
Regarding the rejection of the subsidy, the company said it was unfairly rejected by officials who judged current data speeds rather than the faster service envisioned when the celestial network is built.
“You have to make it work, and you have to get it cheap,” said Chris Quilty, a partner at Quilty Analytics, a satellite and space industry consultant. “It is a very complex market.
And airlines have historically been extremely cautious.”
Starlink executives know they have a lot of work ahead of them.
“There are a lot of challenges to get to where we want to be,” said Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of commercial sales for Starlink.
“It will take time for people to get into the mindset that JSX and Starlink have.”
company offers with JSX and Hawaiian, announced in April, came after SpaceX pitched Starlink to four of the largest US airlines, to no avail. according to people familiar with the subject.
“This is a foot in the door for Starlink,” said telecoms analyst Roger Entner.
“This is proof of concept. Once it works in JSX, it will work everywhere.”
Part of the attraction of JSX was Starlink’s flat antenna, not much bigger than a large pizza box.
It’s less bulky than the turntables widely used by other satellite services, so it fits on top of the smaller regional jets from Brazil’s Embraer SA that JSX flies.
The antenna “is definitely an advantage in terms of winning in-flight connectivity contracts for regional aircraft,” said Louie DiPalma, an analyst at William Blair & Co. The firm does business with Viasat.
In the next few years, airlines may upgrade more than 1,000 planes in regional fleets from slow legacy Internet systems, and Starlink is “a leading contender” for winning such contracts, DiPalma said.
Intelsat says it remains the largest provider of in-flight services, with around 2,000 planes connected by its satellites and around 1,000 planes connected by air-to-ground systems that communicate with ground-based equipment.
Viasat says its in-flight system serves some 1,930 planes, with agreements to equip another 1,210 planes.
About 10,000 commercial aircraft already have wireless connection in flight, a number projected to top 36,000 by 2031, according to NSR, a space and satellite industry researcher owned by Analysys Mason.
Annual revenue in the market is expected to top $7.3 billion by 2031, up from $1.9 billion in 2021, NSR said in an email.
In the JSX test flight, the Starlink system consistently recorded transmission capacities in excess of 100 megabits per second, as measured by the Ookla app, a testing service.
There were about a dozen people on board.
The additional devices on board have driven demand to the equivalent of 20 to 30 passengers using the system.
“I’m excited,” said JSX CEO Alex Wilcox, who was on board the flight over California testing web browsing and WhatsApp calls on the system.
“Exceeded my expectations.”
Days after the test flight, a cross-country trip in an American Airlines Airbus complete with Viasat equipment and more than 100 passengers delivered about 2.2 Mbps per second.
On both flights, Netflix and YouTube videos flowed smoothly, and two-way video chats worked well over WhatsApp.
On each plane, email was easily received and sent, another selling point, or maybe not, for those who remember air travel as a haven from work.