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June 15, 2022
Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites could soon be used for in-flight broadband, following a successful test by UK-based OneWeb and its partners.
The test saw a Boeing 777 passenger plane connect to OneWeb’s network using a specially-designed terminal made by Stellar Blu, which signed a joint development agreement with OneWeb back in November last year. The terminal is named Sidewinder – hopefully after the snake and not the heat-seeking air-to-air missile – and incorporates electronically steered antenna (ESA) technology made by another partner, Ball Aerospace.
The results look promising, with in-flight downlink speeds peaking at 260 Mbps, and 80 Mbps achieved on the uplink, which is no mean feat on an object travelling at several hundred miles per hour. OneWeb said latency was “well under” 100 milliseconds, and the testers were able to carry out a 5 GB file transfer in approximately 20 seconds. It is not clear how much bandwidth would be available to individual passengers if the plane was packed with 400 Tik-Toki-ing holidaymakers all trying to get online at once, but OneWeb said the test flight crew were able to simultaneously make Teams calls, stream Netflix and 4K YouTube content, and play online VR and Nintendo Switch games.
It’s also worth noting that the Sidewinder terminal was able to keep the plane connected during taxi, take-off and landing as well as during the flight. This is important because airlines don’t want to have to install multiple terminals on their aircraft for connecting to different networks, it adds cost and weight – which reduces fuel efficiency.
“This test flight represents a fantastic milestone for OneWeb. Broadband in-flight connectivity, delivered to a commercial aircraft via low Earth orbit satellites and an electrically steered antenna is now – finally – a reality,” said Ben Griffin, VP of mobility at OneWeb, in a statement on Tuesday. “Together with our partners Stellar Blu and technology from Ball Aerospace, we are now well and truly on our way to delivering consistently reliable, game-changing, affordable in-flight connectivity to commercial aviation users everywhere.”
The test flight itself actually took place in Texas in late May, and was the culmination of months of ground trials. OneWeb and its partners said they plan to carry out further tests this year, with the aim of achieving certification for commercial use by the middle of 2023.
As for when LEO-based in-flight broadband services become available to the public, well, that’s anyone’s guess.
Thanks to covid, the airline industry is not exactly in rude health these days. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry made a $126.4 billion net loss in 2020, as revenue fell to $328 billion from $838 billion in 2019. The recovery is expected to be slow going: in 2021, the net loss still stood at a hefty $47.7 billion.
Cash-wise, the IATA reckons the airline industry burned through $149 billion in 2020, and $81 billion in 2021. With budgets under this kind of pressure, grounding planes so they can install new broadband terminals might be quite far down the list of priorities.
Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.
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