Chalk up another milestone for Inmarsat and the European Aviation Network (EAN) hybrid connectivity solution. The company announced today that its S-Band satellite completed its in-orbit testing and is ready to enter service. The satellite launched in late June and “stands ready to support inflight internet services when the European Aviation Network (EAN) goes ‘live’ later this year.”
The satellite delivers half the connectivity infrastructure; the EAN solution also depends on cell towers to deliver the ground components. Deutsche Telekom will deliver that infrastructure and is “well advanced” in the deployment of such, according to the company. With International Airline Group (British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus & Vueling) signed up as a launch partner for EAN everything appears set to fly later this year.
The EAN architecture combines the satellite and terrestrial service to maximize coverage area and total capacity delivered to the planes. In the mandate and licensing agreements the ground component is defined as “complementary” to the satellite services. Depending on who you ask these days the current architecture might not meet the complementary definition. Eutelsat and ViaSat filed legal challenges to the EAN service with Panasonic Avionics joining that protest. The EAN solution is more like a terrestrial system (think Gogo‘s ATG network) with a satellite backup than a satellite system with a ground component backup. The objections center on that architecture being counter to EC mandates, though the writings are sufficiently vague that picking who will win is no so easy.
That effort is working its way through the legal channels across Europe to an uncertain fate, though ViaSat President & COO Rick Baldridge acknowledges “it is very difficult for [regulators] to pull a license back once granted.” The license situation matters as each EU country still controls spectrum licensing in its airspace. If France were to reject the EAN license, for example, British Airways aircraft equipped with the EAN hardware would find themselves outside of terrestrial coverage while over France. That would severely limit the capacity available to those planes as the ground component offers roughly 500 times the total capacity as the satellite.
For now, however, it is reasonable to believe that the EAN is pressing closer to service entry. The 300ish towers continue to be installed (Deutsche Telekom still says full deployment is set for early 2018, though enough should already be operational for planes to start testing today) and Inmarsat is pushing forward with IAG as the launch customer. Like many things in the aviation industry, if Inmarsat can show the service flying on one airline that should help its sales efforts with other carriers. And there are at least a couple thousand aircraft that fly almost exclusively in the European airspace EAN covers without a contract for connectivity today. The smaller, lighter EAN kit should be cheaper to install and operate (lower fuel penalty, etc.) and also potentially deliver cheaper bandwidth prices to the airline or end user. That’s all good news that appears likely to be flying soon enough.