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Air-to-ground connectivity networks do not work over water. The word ground is right there in the name. Not ocean, not sea. Ground. And yet, Deutsche Telekom has its eyes on changing the rules of ATG networking, bringing the technology to some overwater flights to further support Inmarsat‘s European Aviation Network (EAN) operations. The idea might not be as crazy as it sounds.
The ATG network Telekom built to support EAN consists of roughly 300 towers covering most of the continent. There are few places an EAN-equipped aircraft could fly outside the range of these towers. That coverage is key to Inmarsat’s plan for delivering sufficient capacity to the aircraft (and a point of legal contention amongst competitors). But the North Sea remains out of range. The S-band satellite component of EAN covers that gap but with less total capacity and significantly higher latency. So Deutsche Telekom wants to put towers out in the middle of the North Sea. Thanks to the massive energy industry presence many potential locations are available.
David Fox, Deutsche Telekom’s Vice President of Inflight Connectivity, explains that the coverage is “not strictly necessary” owing to the satellite coverage, but that it delivers a far better experience for the connected aircraft.
It’s all still in the design phase, but using fibre-connected oil rigs and wind parks, we are aiming to make the high speed and low latency connections to EAN enabled aircraft as seamless as possible, even when going from the UK to Scandinavia. That aside, it’s also a proof point that larger bodies of water like the North Sea will no longer be the exclusive domain of satellite-only solutions.
Key to the success of such a program is the availability of fiber-connected outposts at sea. A point-to-point microwave backhaul could also theoretically work, though weather conditions in that particular area could make such links less reliable; fog attenuates the signals. Using satellite back-haul could also suffer from weather-induced challenges depending on the frequency range and, more importantly, doesn’t solve the latency challenges of a geostationary satellite based operation. If the data needs satellite backhaul then adding the extra terrestrial (oceanic??) hop makes little sense.
Just how far will fiber-connected farms extend off shore? Even just 50 extra miles out to sea could change coverage profiles in a few regions. Given Inmarsat’s conversations about potentially duplicating the EAN model in other regions, such as Southeast Asia, this design could see expansion as well.
Work on the project is ongoing with specific partners, though Fox declined to share those details. Expect further disclosures of partners and possibly site locations in the not too distant future as the project progresses.
As to the previously mentioned legal challenges, this effort is unlikely to sway regulators on the position of the Complimentary Ground Component and the heavy dependence on such by Inmarsat. It may further ruffle already upset feathers, however, given the specific geography involved. Viasat and Eutelsat are driving the legal and regulatory challenges today. And, coincidentally, their joint-owned Ka-SAT does not deliver coverage over the North Sea. That gap affects some flight routes on Finnair and SAS. It could also affect some Icelandair routes as that carrier brings its 737 MAX fleet online with the Viasat system in the coming months.