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Starlink courting airlines for in-flight Internet connectivity deals

After initially cutting its teeth on consumer broadband, Starlink is now taking some steps toward a strategy focused on providing Internet connectivity for in-flight Wi-Fi services.

"We're in talks with several of the airlines," Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX's VP of Starlink and commercial sales, said Wednesday at the Connected Aviation Intelligence Summit, according to The Verge. "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."

Starlink's acknowledgment of those discussions comes a few months after the company spelled out intentions to provide connectivity to planes, trucks and other moving vehicles. In March, SpaceX filed an application for blanket-licensed Earth Stations in Motion, or ESIMs. While that effort would aim for relatively large vessels, SpaceX chief Elon Musk has already clarified that the ESIM terminals linked to the plan are too large for deployment on Tesla automobiles.

Prior to that filing, SpaceX sought FCC approval to provide connectivity services for up to five private jets while they are on the ground at an airport or in-flight over the US.

Those combined moves would amp up the competition between Starlink and other broadband satellite players that are focused on both consumer and in-flight high-speed Internet services.

Viasat, which has been waging a regulatory battle against Starlink over environmental concerns about Starlink's plan to launch and operate thousands of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, supports a residential broadband business with about 590,000 subscribers, along with an in-flight Internet connectivity business that's starting to recover after the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed air travel.

Viasat, which provides services using a geostationary satellite system, recently struck a deal to provide in-flight connectivity to an additional 230 Delta jets. Viasat ended its most recent quarter with about 1,480 aircraft in service.

Other satellite companies that could be threatened by Starlink's ESIM plan include Inmarsat, SES and Intelsat.

Starlink's initial focus on residential broadband remains in the beta stage, offering up to 100 Mbit/s downstream for $99 per month along with upfront hardware costs of $499 that include the Starlink dish/receiver and Wi-Fi router.

SpaceX has touted the lower latencies provided by its LEO-based service for residential users, and apparently believes those attributes will serve it well in its pursuit of the in-flight connectivity market.

"All in all, passengers and customers want a great experience that [geostationary] systems simply cannot provide," Hofeller said at the conference. "So it's going to be up to the individual airline whether they want to be responsive to that, or if they're okay with having a system that is not as responsive to their customers' demand."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

A version of this story first appeared on Broadband World News.

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