Sprint, OneWeb announce airline connectivity alliance

BARCELONA, SpainSprint, OneWeb and India-based Bharti Airtel announced at Mobile World Congress a new alliance aimed at extending mobile connectivity to consumers in airplanes. The Seamless Air Alliance will use OneWeb’s satellite broadband technology to deliver high speed, low-latency connectivity to customers’ mobile devices in airplane cabins.

The alliance claims it will help airlines and mobile operators overcome some of the technical and operational obstacles of consumer connectivity in airplanes, simplify billing, and increase accessibility of broadband to airline customers. The alliance hopes to develop standards for airline connectivity that will enable interoperability between mobile networks and airline-offered internet services.

The news release announcing the alliance was slim on details of how exactly it will work or when. OneWeb founder and chairman Greg Wyler said the company is preparing to launch the first broadband satellites for the service later this year. The alliance is part of OneWeb’s larger strategy to bring satellite and terrestrial broadband connectivity to underserved markets around the globe. According to a Financial Times report, OneWeb is hoping to have the service up and running in 2019 and will bring 5G roaming to the service in the late 2020s.

Delta Airlines and aerospace firm Airbus are also founding members of the alliance. Delta currently relies on Gogo as its connectivity partner, which operates air-to-ground (ATG) connectivity and a fleet of satellites. Gogo announced last year it will be deploying a new generation of ATG in 2018, which promises speeds of up to 100 Mbps. Gogo has also deployed a satellite-based 2Ku service, which is currently deployed in 250 airplanes across nine airlines. But how Gogo’s services will fit into the alliances' offering remains to be seen.

The Seamless Air Alliance is the first hint of how Softbank, which has invested in both OneWeb and Sprint, may be hoping to leverage its assets. Softbank, which owns the majority stake in Sprint through a 2012 acquisition, has invested some $1.5 billion into OneWeb.