Delta Airlines said it would begin offering free in-flight Wi-Fi to rewards-member passengers on most domestic mainline aircraft starting next month. That news may have travelled under the radar in San Diego amid the deluge of announcements at CES. But it involved a local company — Carlsbad-based Viasat, the satellite Internet provider that supplies in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity for a growing portion of Delta’s domestic fleet. The airline will offer the free service for SkyMiles members on most Delta flights with Viasat Wi-Fi within the U.S. starting Feb. 1. It will be offered on more than 700 Delta aircraft by the end of 2023.
“At work, at home and everywhere in between, connectivity is essential to daily life, and your journey on Delta should be no different,” said Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian in a statement. “Our vision has long been to deliver an experience at 30,000 feet that feels similar to what our customers have available on the ground.”
Working with engineers from Viasat, Delta tested the system with an eye toward rolling out the free program on a larger number of additional routes by the end of 2024. “It is imperative all customers on board can enjoy their favorite content just as they would at home, and we’ve put this system through meticulous tests to make that possible,” said Bastian.
Delta isn’t the first U.S. airline to offer free Wi-Fi to passengers. JetBlue, one of Viasat’s early in-flight connectivity customers, also offers it at no charge. Being able to deliver the Internet connectivity economically enough to allow airlines to offer it to passengers at low cost or for free has long been touted as a possibility by Viasat executives.
“Viasat’s system — from the satellites to how we manage bandwidth — has been designed over many years to enable consistent, high-quality Wi-Fi at scale for customers like Delta, so those traveling on Viasat-equipped Delta aircraft can enjoy their favorite content—similar to how they would at home,” said Don Buchman, general manager of the company’s commercial aviation business.
Delta’s move comes as Viasat is facing increased competition in the in-flight connectivity market from newcomers including SpaceX’s Starlink Aviation, which is working with Hawaiian Airlines, JSX and others to deliver in-flight Internet from its low-earth orbit satellite constellation. Viasat’s current fleet of high-orbit, geostationary satellites are nearly full. To increase capacity, the company is expected to launch its next-generation satellite, ViaSat-3, before the end of March. It will deliver an additional terabit of targeted bandwidth to Viasat’s network. This first satellite will cover the Americas. Six months later, a second ViaSat-3 is expected to blast off, providing coverage over Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The third satellite in the constellation, which will deliver bandwidth to the Asia-Pacific region, is forecast to launch less than a year later.
“With ViaSat-3, we believe Viasat still will have the lowest cost per bit in a market where demand far exceeds supply,” said Mike Crawford, an analyst with B. Riley Securities, a member of the Discovery Group. “But we do acknowledge there are a lot more existing and future bits to be consumed, including from SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, not to mention a nearly-deployed OneWeb constellation and a soon-to-be-launched Kuiper from Amazon.”