TAMPA, Fla. — Gogo is planning to use OneWeb satellites in a partnership that could see it take on Starlink in an emerging business aviation market for low Earth orbit services. 

Gogo announced plans May 22 to use OneWeb’s LEO network to connect business jets that are currently too small to use commercial high-speed satellite broadband solutions.

The inflight connectivity provider plans to use an electronically steered antenna that is small and light enough to fit “virtually any size business aircraft,” Gogo spokesperson Dave Mellin said.

This includes “super light jets” such the seven-seater HondaJet, or “large turboprops” that would include the King Air 350 that seats 9-11 passengers.

Gogo said it plans to provide the services globally soon after OneWeb’s constellation is available. The British LEO startup is currently only serving the upper reaches of the northern hemisphere and says it will be ready to connect business aircraft in 2024.

SpaceX’s Starlink LEO broadband services are more widely available and currently serve fixed customers in 32 countries

SpaceX has not specifically detailed Starlink’s plans for the business aviation market.

However, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted May 23 that he is testing Starlink on his business jet, adding that “[s]ome polishing needed, but it’s working quite well.”

Musk reportedly uses a large, long-range Gulfstream G650ER business jet, which can be configured for 11 to 18 passengers.

Musk tweeted May 24 that “Starlink does work on vehicles in motion, including planes, but not yet reliably.”

Gogo expansion

Gogo currently provides low-data rate communications internationally primarily through Iridium’s LEO satellite network, which uses an antenna the size of a hockey puck for voice and text services. Gogo also uses Inmarsat’s geostationary satellites for other low-data rate narrowband services including email.

For aircraft flying over the continental United States, the Chicago-based company uses a system of towers for an air-to-ground, or ATG, network that it says is currently capable of 4G performance while it upgrades to 5G.

Although Gogo’s high-speed service with OneWeb will also work on ultra-long-range large-cabin aircraft, Melin said May 25 that “the midsize and lower” class flying beyond the reach of ATG towers “have never had a broadband option before, and our service will fit on those aircraft.”

Until Starlink, OneWeb and other LEO systems come online and are able to reliably provide services on-the-move, airlines flying beyond the reach of ATG ground networks have been using satellites in geostationary orbit for faster speeds.

“The antennas that are available for [high-speed broadband] satellites today are … large enough that they have to sit in the tail of the aircraft,” Mellin said.

“And there’s only so many aircraft that have a tail and can take the weight of that system to be able to install it.”

Gogo’s electronically steered antenna was developed with Hughes Network Systems and is capable of terrestrial broadband performance, Gogo said in the May 22 news release.

“This will be a fast and affordable broadband system that will provide best-in-class global performance on the broadest range of aircraft in business aviation,” Gogo president and chief operating officer Sergio Aguirre said in a statement.

There were 6,526 aircraft flying with Gogo’s ATG systems onboard and 4,522 aircraft with narrowband satellite connectivity installed as of March 31, according to Gogo.

Ric Prentiss, an analyst at Raymond James, said the partnership with OneWeb gives Gogo the ability to serve international business aviation markets that include 14,000 additional planes, on top of the domestic market at around 25,000 planes. 

Prentiss said the deal illustrates how inflight connectivity providers can benefit from LEO constellations even as some continue to view Starlink, OneWeb and others “as a potential competitive threat” to their businesses.

“This partnership supports our belief that LEO connectivity represents a much greater opportunity than a threat for GOGO, as it makes sense for a wholesale LEO provider like OneWeb to partner with GOGO given the very fragmented dealer network and importance of relationships in going-to-market,” he said in a note to investors.

Waiting on OneWeb

OneWeb has signed launch agreements with SpaceX and India to resume satellite deployment this year, after plans to complete the constellation with Russian Soyuz rockets were scrapped over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The LEO startup has deployed 428 satellites, or 66% of the planned total fleet, enabling services in the upper reaches of the northern hemisphere.

SpaceX has more than 2,400 Starlink satellites in orbit, according to statistics maintained by spaceflight analyst and astronomer Jonathan McDowell.

Last month, jet service provider JSX said it is set to become the first air carrier to provide Starlink’s LEO services later this year.

Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of Starlink commercial sales, said the service will provide “internet experience similar to or better than what passengers experience at home.”

Most of the routes the Dallas-based charter servicer operates are around the U.S. Southwest. JSX said the deal enables it to provide Starlink in-flight Wi-Fi on up to 100 planes.

There are currently 77 30-seat Embraer jets in JSX’s fleet, and JSX declined to comment on whether the service will use an electronically steered antenna.

Starlink unveiled a service plan designed for campervans, motorhomes and other recreational vehicles (RVs) May 23, but said the service is not yet ready for mobility.

“While our teams are actively working to make it possible to use Starlink on moving vehicles (e.g., automobiles, RVs, boats), Starlink is not yet configured to be safely used in this way,” the company says on its website.

Starlink is also targeting the commercial aviation market and has plans to connect Hawaiian Airlines flights next year.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...