SpaceX Jumps into Competitive IFC Market with New Starlink Aviation Service
The era of Starlink Aviation is now here. SpaceX has made no secret of its desire to become a major player in the IFC market, and has now taken the next step by unveiling Starlink Aviation.
SpaceX revealed that Starlink Aviation will be able to deliver up to 350 Mbps to each plane, enabling all passengers to access streaming-capable internet at the same time. It says with latency as low as 20 ms, passengers can engage in activities previously not functional in flight, including video calls, online gaming, virtual private networks and other high data rate activities. Starlink’s low-profile aero terminal features an electronically steered phased array antenna, which it says enables new levels of reliability, redundancy and performance.
Starlink, a SpaceX company, has already signed deals with the likes of Hawaiian Airlines, but over the next year, it is clearly targeting a lot more. But, now its Internet service for aircraft has a new name. It is targeting both the business aviation and commercial aviation market.
So, what do leading industry analysts’ make of this? Daniel Welch, Co-Founder and Senior Consultant, The Valour Consultancy told Via Satellite, “SLAs are moving away from Mbps to the aircraft and toward Mbps to the seat as airlines look to focus on improving the experience for every passenger that accesses the onboard Wi-Fi service. The figures quoted from SpaceX are undoubtedly impressive but I’d hope to see commitments made to the seat level over time.”
Vishal Patil, IFEC Consultant, Euroconsult told Via Satellite that he thought the launch of Starlink Aviation would be perceived with “mixed reactions”. While he says some stakeholders may feel cheered by 350 Mbps per aircraft news, for others, it might be too early to absorb it all, he said. Patil added that there are still a lot of uncertainties revolving around the news. “The first and most important one is to understand how Starlink without the inter-satellite links on its first-generation satellites is promoting 20 ms and global coverage (including over the oceans),” he said. “It is also important to understand the meaning of up to 350 Mbps per aircraft, whether as a committed bandwidth or minimum bandwidth? Today, the veteran players in the market have a set path and an installed base. Their services are flight-proven. On the other hand, Starlink is in its nascent stages.”
Tim Farrar, President, TMF Associates told Via Satellite that he believes it is far from clear cut that Starlink will gets lots of business, and that there are potential plenty of obstacles ahead. Farrar believes this announcement does indicate equipment pricing without installation, suggesting that airlines’ requirements for installation and support may end up being a sticking point. Farrar added, “That’s particularly the case when airlines can’t easily change out equipment if Starlink changes tack at short notice. Starlink has recently signed deals with service providers like Marlink and Speedcast in order to address precisely these issues of customer support in the maritime and enterprise segments. So, the key question is whether Starlink still intends to go it alone in aviation, or will now sign similar deals in that segment. And if so, who with?”
Brent Prokosh, Senior Consultant, Euroconsult added, “The new offering is squarely aimed at the upper-end of the business aviation market (where sensitivity to price is likely lower). While Starlink’s peak speeds of 350 Mbps are almost 10x higher than current high-end satellite offerings in the segment, the monthly fees are significantly higher than market averages for both Air-to-Ground (ATG) and satellite (VSAT) solutions.”
When speaking at the Connected Aviation Intelligence event in June, Starlink Vice President of Commercial Sales Jonathan Hofeller said current in-flight internet services powered by Geostationary (GEO) satellites will not be able to keep up with the connectivity demands of airline passengers, particularly younger consumers.
When determining SpaceX’s ability to compete in the airline market, Valour’s Welch noted, “There is certainly a great deal of interest in Starlink Aviation, both from airlines and the competition. I’d expect to see carriers wait to see how the service performs on launch customers, Hawaiian and JSX, but it’s really only a matter of time before we see SpaceX increase its share of the IFC installed base. Domination is a strong word – line-fit offerability is becoming more important and there’s already a lot of aircraft with IFC hardware installed and it’s hard to justify removing it for most carriers. But the major incumbents will now be up against a disruptor competing strongly on price and brand appeal – it’s going to make for an interesting few years ahead.”
Patil is also unsure on whether Starlink will dominate this market. He says, “With multiple operators and service providers joining hands together and marching towards multi-orbit, multi-frequency solutions along with equipment manufacturers supporting the idea with the latest development efforts in the same direction, it is most likely be the future with LEO, MEO, and GEO solutions co-existing and serving the market.”
Ultimately, considering what we are seeing in the market with Intelsat/Gogo, Inmarsat/Viasat, how many players could play in this market as it develops this decade. Welch says, “We’ve seen the market moving into the networks of three vendors, two of which are in the process of merging. I’d argue we’ll see a handful of vendors continue to compete for airline customers in the commercial aviation space.”
Hofeller said aviation is a potentially significant market for LEO-driven internet services that Starlink is actively targeting, noting that beyond the Hawaiian and JSX contracts are “several more [airline agreements] in the works.”
Starlink Aviation will have global coverage. SpaceX says that since the satellites are moving in LEO, there are always satellites overhead or nearby to provide a strong signal at high latitudes and in polar regions – unlike with GEO satellites. Service will be available in-flight over land and water and on the ground during taxi, take-off, and landing. As long as the equipment is powered on and the Starlink has an unobstructed view of the sky, connection is possible. Starlink aims to start deliveries of the service to airlines and bizjet operators in 2023.