In-flight connection could grow from $700 million in 2015 to $5.4 billion a year by 2025 according to Euroconsult. The principal airline in-flight-connectivity service providers worldwide are sharply increasing their revenue that in 2016, which amounted to $778 million. More than 24,000 commercial aircraft are expected to be equipped with in-flight connection by 2020 but competition will be fierce between satellite telecommunications companies.

The European Aviation Network (EAN), established in September 2015, as one of the first worldwide initiatives that combine high capacity satellite coverage with a complementary 4G LTE ground network to provide speed coverage up to 500Mbps across Europe. The EAN resulted from a partnership between Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom and is scheduled to enter commercial service in the second half of 2017. The advantage of such a system is that it has the speed that a ground network can deliver while benefiting from the continual coverage that only satellite can provide. Moreover, with no moving parts on the aircraft, the solution is not only lightweight but also easy to install, very robust and low maintenance. The EAN is supposed to bring in-flight connectivity across the EU, Norway, and Switzerland. The service will give passengers of the airlines the ability to use their personal devices for internet browsing, video streaming, and other online services at a low-latency performance and at the same time airlines can use EAN for core flight services such as advanced aircraft maintenance and operations management.

So far, some successful ground tests took place. For instance, in June 2016 Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom, together with their technology partners Nokia and Thales have successfully conducted a programme of test flights in the UK. In February 2017 there was a successful test and validation of the EAN Satellite Access Station (SAS) located in the Greek town of Nemea and operated under an agreement with OTE, the largest telecommunications provider in Greece and member of the Deutsche Telekom Group.

Applications of EAN are becoming a reality with the collaborative agreement signed by Inmarsat and Airbus last June that will pave the way for EAN development and will offer airlines a specialist retrofit solution to deploy EAN on the entire A320 family of aircraft, including A319s, A320s and A321s, which form the backbone of many leading airline fleets in Europe. The company says that over 750 aircraft will be retrofitted with EAN over the next three years.

However, satellite operator Inmarsat is facing a legal challenge from competitors ViaSat, Eutelsat and Panasonic to the EU Court of Justice, based on alleged misuse of its original radio spectrum license, granted in 2009 for rural satellite broadband. Competitors have argued that authorizing Inmarsat’s services would result in a de facto monopoly in Europe, while their own satellite launch is scheduled by early 2020, offering better performance capabilities. Many European national telecom regulatory authorities are yet to take a decision on Inmarsat’s proposals.
Apart from Europe, this technology could expand globally as Inmarsat also announced its intention to target US telecoms operators in order to launch in-flight connectivity services in the region and compete in the US market. However, such move is likely to take place only once the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) carries out its auction on the 14GHz band, which is optimized for air-to-ground services.

By Logos Public Affairs

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