Satellite communications companies Intelsat and OneWeb are partnering in order to provide airlines with inflight connectivity (IFC).

Despite being an unlikely duo, the agreement will enable Intelsat to distribute OneWeb’s low earth orbit (LEO) satellite services to airlines alongside Intelsat’s current geo-stationary (GEO) satellite IFC service.

Intelsat satelittle OneWeb
Intelsat's GEO satellites & UK LEO satellites (including OneWeb) – SatTrack

By combining the two satellite services, airlines will have access to a more reliable IFC. GEO satellites are positioned at a much higher altitude, meaning they can provide connectivity to a wider range of areas, but with this comes higher latency data transfers. Comparatively, LEO satellites sit closer to the earth’s surface, but more satellites are required for the same connectivity. OneWeb runs around 428 LEO satellites in orbit, while Intelsat has little more than 50 in operation.

The combined service is expected to be operational by 2024 and should provide coverage even at busy hubs, across oceans, and over polar routes.

OneWeb’s vice president of Mobility Services, Ben Griffin, describes the partnership as a ‘watershed moment’ for IFC. He went on to say: “We’re excited to work together with Intelsat to bring our multi-orbit solution to commercial aviation. We’re committed to delivering the most differentiated and innovative solution for airlines.”

“This level of connectivity will enable airlines to maximize brand affiliation with passengers through all their onboard services – delivering a truly connected end-to-end passenger journey,” said Jeff Sare, Intelsat’s president of Commercial Aviation.

The announcement of a partnership between the two companies is slightly unexpected, given a complex business-relationship history. In 2015, Intelsat invested $25 million in OneWeb for exclusive access to OneWeb’s services in four sectors: US government, maritime, oil and gas, and aviation.

Two years later, the companies announced a $13 billion merger, which failed due to insufficient creditor support. The fallout of which resulted in Intelsat suing OneWeb and its investor SoftBank, alleging breaches of contract and fraud as the company felt SoftBank’s investment in OneWeb was overriding Intelsat and OneWeb’s existing commercial agreement.

In 2020, Intelsat filed for bankruptcy protection and withdrew from the legal battle in order to pursue a more friendly resolution. At the time, OneWeb was also dealing with bankruptcy problems of its own.

Both companies have since emerged from bankruptcy, with OneWeb recently entering a $3.4 billion merger deal with Eutelsat.

Earlier this year, OneWeb announced that the company was partnering with Gogo Business Aviation; Gogo plans to be able to sell OneWeb’s inflight broadband services to passengers from 2024.

SpaceX’s Starlink has previously signed two aviation deals – one with private plane provider JSX and another with Hawaiian Airlines. The two deals total around 100 planes.

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