Future Tense

Airplane Wi-Fi Might Get Even Worse

A crew member signals in front of an airplane.
Bad food *and* bad Wi-Fi???? No thank you! Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP via Getty Images

The skies are about to become a lot less friendly, to take the British government’s word for it.

On Thursday, the United Kingdom’s core business regulator published findings from its investigation into two of the “largest satellite communications companies in the world”: Viasat, a public California-based firm, and Inmarsat, a London-headquartered private contractor. Both are telecoms juggernauts that utilize satellite fleets to provide broadband internet service across multiple continents. They also dominate much of the market for that maddening travel service: in-flight Wi-Fi. So it spurred just a bit of concern when late last year, Viasat finalized a $7.3 billion takeover bid for Inmarsat, in essence swallowing up its only major competitor. The British government’s famously aggressive Competition and Markets Authority launched its probe in July to investigate whether this deal will establish a full monopoly on airplane internet service—likely making it even more unusable, and far more costly, than it already is.

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Just about every major airline works with one of these two providers. Viasat covers Wi-Fi for American Airlines, JetBlue, Virgin America, and United Airlines, among others; Inmarsat partners with Lufthansa, British Airways, Qatar Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and more. It’s likely that, no matter the flight path, you’ve previously cursed these companies’ services after blowing $10 so you could check your email for 30 minutes.

For Viasat to take charge of Inmarsat would entail nearly complete control not just of another company but, basically, a global sector. In North America alone, Viasat doubled its share of the domestic in-flight connectivity market in just a three-year period—from 10 percent to nearly 30 percent—steeply cutting into the prior dominance of firms like Gogo, Global Eagle, and Panasonic. Meanwhile, in 2018, Inmarsat’s chief executive estimated that his company accounted for 30 percent of the global market. As the CMA pointed out in its Thursday report, this makes these two “the strongest suppliers in a market with few other established players.” And considering that “the aviation sector … is one of the most difficult industries for satellite operators to enter,” the CMA concluded, a merger of already-dominant businesses could ruin the consumer experience they provide: “Airlines could face higher prices and be offered lower quality connectivity solutions, ultimately affecting the cost, quality and availability of services for airline passengers.”

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Obviously, that’s not great, especially at a moment when flying is a shitshow. No one likes a bad ride, much less one made worse by crappy Wi-Fi. Americans already recognize how much it sucks to have at-home internet options constricted by a monopolistic system, and basically everyone knows airplane Wi-Fi is too pricey and laggy as is, no matter the flight. There are smaller competitors in the space, but they’re nowhere near positioned to provide alternative, possibly smoother consumer options on a worldwide scale. Gogo, for example, is mainly competitive in North America for business flights; Elon Musk’s Starlink, with all its hype, still has a ways to go before reaching mass commercial adoption (a predicament it can blame in part on Viasat itself). On just a technical basis, the CMA explained, “it can be very difficult for airlines to switch providers once they have installed a connectivity solution.” Thus, a Viasat-Inmarsat hydra would have an already-in-place market presence of a size no current competitors could hope to overcome.

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To be sure, prominent names like Delta and Southwest have worked their relationships with Viasat to improve Wi-Fi capacity; the firm plans on launching even more satellites to increase connectivity options and bandwidth. Such improvements have also allowed for airlines to finally lower consumers’ in-flight costs after COVID’s impact on the aviation industry caused them to, well, take off. Yet if Viasat gains the satellite-broadband market to itself, it’s likely the corporation will face much less pressure down the line to improve service and cheapen its product—which other providers would airlines be able to turn to with Viasat’s trove of satellites, coverage breadth, and general resources? Especially when it can squeeze more money out of you for an upgrade from poor connectivity to subpar quality at best?

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Beyond that, there are also cybersecurity concerns. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it launched an attack on the latter’s Viasat-controlled satellite receptors, knocking out Ukrainian communications—as well as internet access for thousands more Europeans across the continent, whether in France or Germany or elsewhere. Anticipation of such an event could explain why the Boris Johnson administration probed the Imnarsat acquisition, shortly after it was finalized, in the interest of national security; imagine how vulnerable an even bigger Viasat could be. Yet right when Prime Minister Liz Truss took office last month, her new pick for business secretary cleared the deal, claiming there was no risk to the country. So at this point, the competition argument is the only tool left to halt this thing.

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At any rate, Thursday marked the official end of the CMA’s phase 1 investigation into the merger, during which it took public comment and scoured internal and external documents pertaining to the corporations’ business models. Now, Viasat and Inmarsat have four working days to submit proposals that address the issues laid out by CMA. Should they do so, the authority will have five more working days to consider whether the suggested fixes are sufficient to allay its anti-competition concerns. If the CMA finds that to be the case, the primary obstacle to the merger will fall, and you may have an even harder time checking your email than you used to (unless you splurge on a higher tier of service—though that won’t always do the trick). But if CMA doesn’t like what the companies have to say, then it will commence a phase 2 investigation, convening a group of CMA staffers and outside experts to conduct their own “in-depth” investigation of the facts within a six-month timeline (although this could end early if the companies withdraw the merger). The group’s final report will dictate the final stage—whether it wishes to block the deal altogether, or mandate changes to ensure the acquisition doesn’t adversely affect British (and, in turn, global) commerce.

It’s too soon to predict what how that process will end. But if the CMA greenlights this mess, the modern air travel experience may soon have something way worse than the dang food.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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