Travelers have a love/hate relationship with inflight wifi, and that’s being kind. People want wifi on airplanes, but they want wifi that works. Wifi onboard is fairly common, but wifi that works well? Not so much. A recent test by Global Eagle and Telesat shows how there may be hope on the horizon thanks to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. What the heck is a LEO, you ask? That’s what we’re going to discuss today.
In the beginning, wifi on airplanes primarily came from air-to-ground systems. Receivers on the ground dotted the US from the old Airfone inflight telephone days. Those were re-purposed to provide wifi instead of voice, and it worked. But it only only worked over land where the receivers existed, and there was a finite amount of bandwidth. Gogo was built on this system, and that’s how it became to be known as Nogo. As demand increased, the system just wasn’t up to the task.
Providers rapidly gravitated toward satellite-based systems using Ku band. This had the potential to offer much more bandwidth, though the promise of unlimited bandwidth was somewhat ahead of its ability to deliver. Over time, more satellites have been launched to greatly increase the bandwidth available in both Ku and Ka band. Every provider has flocked toward this technology — even Gogo — but there were still problems
See, these systems all use geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) satellites. These satellites have to go way out into orbit, about 22,000 miles from Earth. Out there, they actually orbit with the Earth, making it seem like they are stationary when compared to any point on the planet. That’s why you see specific coverage maps for satellite service. Those satellites sit over a certain area and never move.
So what’s the problem? Well, first of all, 22,000 miles is a long way to go so latency is pretty high. In addition, the GEO satellites can’t provide service over the poles, something that matters a great deal for long-distance travel.
Further, since the satellites stay fixed to a point on Earth, they are more prone to disruption by something in between the satellite and the point that needs to use it, like Space Godzilla, for example.
Enter LEO satellites. These aren’t new by any means — most satellites are in low Earth orbit — but for connectivity it is new. LEO satellites are only 750 miles up (remember GEO satellites are 22,000 miles above the Earth), and they move fast. They also move in relation to the Earth, so you need to have a constellation of satellites available so that you never lose connectivity. That makes it complex and expensive in theory, but things are changing.
Launching a satellite into geostationary orbit is hard and extremely expensive. (Just think of the cost of fuel alone to get something that far out.) Launching into a lower orbit is easier, and it’s getting much easier. Think about Virgin Orbit based right in my backyard on the old Douglas factory grounds at the Long Beach Airport. Virgin Orbit is taking an old Virgin Atlantic 747 and outfitting it to take LauncherOne up to cruising altitude. From there, LauncherOne will deploy (above the weather, preventing scrubs for that reason) and take the satellite (or a whole bunch of satellites) up into a low Earth orbit. Virgin Orbit says this is almost ready for commercial service. This and other services will make it much easier and cheaper to get satellites into a low orbit. It will also make it easier to maintain these satellites over time.
So when Global Eagle used its test aircraft to use Telesat’s LEO satellite for connectivity this week, it wasn’t just a gimmick. The test not only showed that there was strong, low-latency, high-bandwidth connectivity, but it also showed that Global Eagle’s system can easily switch between LEO and GEO options without interruption. Apparently they were able to maintain a videoconference while switching between satellites.
Whether LEO satellites become the primary backbone of aviation wifi service or just something that fills in the gaps doesn’t matter. What matters is that more reliable, lower latency, and faster options are coming.