Smartphones to be inescapable, even at 40,000 feet

Airbus, OneWeb partner up to bring airborne roaming to the masses

MWC18 Folk soon need not look up from their screens when boarding aircraft and wandering the aisles thanks to an alliance formed by OneWeb and Airbus to bring 5G roaming to the skies.

OneWeb, which hopes to launch the first of some 900 satellites into low Earth orbit this year aboard a Russian Soyuz-ST from the Korou Cosmodrome in French Guiyana, plan to make the announcement during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Both OneWeb's satellites and mass-market 5G are currently as substantial as the clouds in the sky. However, the data slinger promises a campaign from August that will see a satellite launch every three weeks until it reaches the 900 target.

Boffins will be hoping that there is no repeat of the quality issues that caused the loss of a Soyuz back in November 2017, when programmers accidentally entered the wrong coordinates for the launch site into the rocket's guidance system.

That error sent the payload, a weather-monitoring satellite ironically named "Meteor", tumbling back to earth in a fiery display visible from a British Airways flight heading from Montreal to London.

Competitors such as Inmarsat are already offering airlines the ability to sell connectivity-starved customers the ability to tweet pictures of their inflight meals to the masses, but the OneWeb proposition differs significantly.

Rather than requiring a sign-up to inflight broadband, customers will simply be able to use normal roaming functionality, with price gouging billing handled by their own carrier.

With the US airline Delta and Indian carrier Airtel also signed up to the "Seamless Air Alliance", there is clear industry support.

If only OneWeb could actually get its satellites into orbit to provide the necessary service.

"With the launch of our first production satellites set for later this year, we're one step closer to bridging the global Digital Divide on land and in the air," enthused OneWeb founder and executive chairman Greg Wyler.

It will be a busy few years for upstart satellite broadband providers. SpaceX has already got the first of its Starlink constellation off the ground, and if August's Soyuz launch goes well, OneWeb has a Florida factory ready to churn out the hundreds of satellites needed for its network as soon as launchers, and funds, permit.

Should the standards proposed by the alliance be adopted across the industry, and aircraft equipped accordingly, then travellers should expect to see inflight roaming become a reality by the late 2020s. Of course, by then, we will all be in flying cars. Right?

In the meantime, airline coffers will continue to be embiggened by bespoke inflight broadband. Or customers could, perhaps, just read a book instead. ®

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