Wifi in the sky as Inmarsat and DT’s joint project takes flight

James Pearce
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Air passengers across Europe will be able to stay connected, thanks to a joint venture between Deutsche Telekom and Inmarsat. James Pearce examines the European Aviation Network, and looks at rival operations from Eutelsat and Inmarsat itself

Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom have successfully launched a new satellite designed to support in-flight Wifi services for passengers travelling across European airspace.

The European Aviation Network (EAN), as the European Commission-backed initiative is called, will deliver connectivity to passenger planes from the Inmarsat-operated satellite alongside a ground-based mobile network developed by Deutsche Telekom. The promise is revenue of at least $200,000 a year per aircraft – and a market that could outstrip Inmarsat’s existing business. 

Inmarsat’s plan is to start supporting services from the second half of this year and – while the initial focus is on in-flight consumer offerings – it and Deutsche Telekom say the EAN could also connect to aircraft sensors and help to make flight operations more efficient.

Inmarsat already has a number of partners – including launch partner International Airlines Group (IAG), whose subsidiaries include British Airways, Aer Lingus and Iberia. German airline Lufthansa trialled the network technology. Deutsche Telekom says that talks are underway with other airlines serving the region. 

Carsten Spohr, CEO of Lufthansa, said: “We are pleased to offer our passengers an outstanding internet experience on board our short and medium-haul flights already from 2016. This underlines once again that we are pioneers when it comes to digital services on board. Together with Deutsche Telekom and Inmarsat, we are thinking further ahead. We want to engage in the development of next generation technology to further strengthen our innovative and leading role in this field.” He added: “We continue to strive for excellence when it comes to our passengers’ flying experience and the provision of reliable, consistent broadband connectivity aboard our planes – which will match that of high-speed home broadband in terms of speed and quality – is of extreme importance to us.”

The project sees Deutsche Telekom supplying more than 300 ground towers, while Inmarsat provides connectivity from its newly launched S-band satellite, the Inmarsat S EAN.

“This bold step will make Deutsche Telekom the first telecommunications operator to take the advantages of LTE technology to the European airspace and fits perfectly into our strategy to become the leading European telco,” explained Tim Höttges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom. 

“As a ground-breaking innovation we will roll out a powerful terrestrial network based on LTE within the European Aviation Network. This will be the first aviation connectivity network in Europe powered by both LTE and satellite combined. Our technology leadership provides a solid foundation for the best customer experience possible – be that on the ground or in the skies – and enables us to work with the finest partners in Europe and beyond.”

Bold claims

Inmarsat is making some bold claims about the new service. For one thing, the equipment that goes on the aircraft will be a lot smaller and lighter than the kit needed for other satellite systems, explained CEO Rupert Pearce when he met GTB following the launch – making installation easier and more cost effective (see interview on pages 14-15).

The satellite uses S-band spectrum at 2GHz granted by the European Union, while Deutsche Telekom’s network also works in the 2GHz frequency range. The system has apparently been set up to switch seamlessly between the satellite service and the terrestrial network as conditions dictate.

Representatives from Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom insisted this was not dependent on altitude but on other factors, such as whether the plane is travelling over land or water.

A number of other companies were involved in the project, including Nokia, which provided DT with the base station technology; Thales, which provided the Complementary Ground Component (CGC) terminal; Cobham Wireless; and Airbus, which signed up to feature the EAN on its entire A320 aircraft family.

Inmarsat’s Pearce said: “It is the first ever pan-European network built in Europe – that’s a good thing for Europeans. It is the first time we’ve paired two different technologies and used them in complementary ways. We’ve taken the reach and uniqueness of satellite allied with brute force and surgical focus of terrestrial. It is a very efficient use of spectrum, which couldn’t be auctioned anyway, and it gives us maximum innovation in Europe.”

It has completed work in five countries out of 30 – which include all of the European Union’s member states as well as Norway and Switzerland – and expects to finish the entire project by the end of the year. The operator does not have operating companies in every European country, meaning Deutsche Telekom and Inmarsat will need to strike wholesale agreements with operators outside of the former’s footprint – something that will fall under the jurisdiction of DT’s international wholesale division, ICSS.

In a LinkedIn post, Rolf Nafziger, SVP of international wholesale at Deutsche Telekom, said the launch of Inmarsat’s EAN satellite marked the “start of a new era”, providing “broadband internet in the skies over Europe, thanks to the world’s first integrated satellite and complementary LTE-based ground network”. 

He added: “We’re making great progress with the roll-out of the ground network, with major western European countries already completed. So now there’s nothing standing in the way of our market launch in England, Germany and other parts of western Europe at the end of this year – with full European coverage in 2018.”

Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom said that test flights had recorded downlink connection speeds of at least 70Mbps to the aircraft and “in the high 30s” for uplink connections from a plane.

It will provide competition with Inmarsat’s own in-flight offering – its Global Xpress Network – which was launched in September 2016 and already has 1,200 planes under contract. Lufthansa, for example, trialled the EAN but then signed a 10-year deal to take services directly from Inmarsat. 

But for Inmarsat CEO Pearce, that isn’t a problem because, he says, “the market looks big”. He explains: “More than 20,000 planes are projected to be connected by the mid-2020s. The average revenue from those planes with be $200,000-$300,000 per year. So you get a market of $4-$6 billion, so having a decent market share of that would be transformational for Inmarsat of our business. Our largest business today is maritime, which is around a $600 million business, so it’s possible just one part of our aviation business could dwarf that.”

Why can Inmarsat’s plans for airline connectivity be so much more successful than past attempts? He says it is about quality: “In the last few years, the thought process for airlines has changed. A few years ago, the question was: ‘Do I need connectivity?’ But now the focus is on quality. Airlines have twigged that there is only one thing worse than not being connected, and that is offering it, but it being rubbish.”

He says: “A lot of aircraft are connected with rubbish connectivity – the first generation isn’t good quality – it is patchy and doesn’t seem like value for money. That is really favouring us.”

It will also benefit the European economy, he adds: “Aviation is huge – 500 million passengers last year, going to double by next year. That’s a billion people who can work, play, buy service and sell services. The impact that has on European GDP as we’re trying to come out of austerity and into growth – this helps.”

Air battle

Inmarsat and DT have faced challenges in getting its service up in the air – mainly due to legal action from its rival. 

Rival company Eutelsat originally had the licence that Inmarsat is using for the EAN project, but gave it up. It has since launched a joint venture with ViaSat under which the ViaSat-2 satellite, Eutelsat’s Ka-Sat satellite and a future ViaSat-3 would develop the market for consumer satellite broadband and aeronautical broadband in the European region.

ViaSat took the issue to European regulators, and then to the European Commission, accusing Inmarsat of “misusing spectrum” to gain “an unfair competitive advantage” by “creating a monopoly for European in-flight connectivity”. Pearce dismissed the claims, claiming rivals are just concerned with “slowing” down the EAN.

“The motivations of our rivals are to stop us or slow us down,” he explains. “We find it strange that when asked about competing with EAN they dismissed it completely. They’ve been very dismissive of it to shareholders. 

“I say ‘bring it on’ – competition is good. They are trying to stop it because they fear it. They’ve had the opportunity to stop it. Eutelsat bid and sold the licence – and they could have gone to the European Commission and complained. It wasn’t until we got out there and offered our own aviation package that looked threatening to their own joint offering.”