Gogo, AT&T could score as Inmarsat rolls out hybrid ATG in Europe


Inmarsat gave a surprising endorsement to Gogo’s air-to-ground (ATG) business in the United States when it announced plans today to launch a unique new pan-European integrated satellite/ATG network deployed in S-band frequencies. Inmarsat also suggested it is open to exploring new opportunities with Gogo, as well as would-be 4G LTE inflight connectivity provider AT&T.

“Our investments will replicate a proven and successful model that has already been rolled out in North America by Gogo and is now a very successful business showing excellent growth dynamics,” Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce said at the outset of an investors call announcing the company’s hybrid connectivity plan for European operators, as well as Inmarsat’s advanced talks to deliver the service to British Airways.

Pearce noted that Gogo’s “success” recently triggered a decision by telecommunications giant AT&T to build a competing ATG solution in North America, “demonstrating that scale players see tremendous future growth potential in this emerging segment”.

Inmarsat has not yet revealed its hardware and service partner(s) for the new hybrid service. An Inmarsat spokesman says he doesn’t believe a decision has been made.

Might Inmarsat reach out to Gogo as service provider of the new network in light of the firm’s aforementioned prowess in delivering ATG in North America? After all, Gogo is already a service distribution partner for Inmarsat’s forthcoming Global Xpress Ka-band satellite connectivity service. The Inmarsat spokesman didn’t say. But Pearce did indicate during the call that Inmarsat would be open to partnering with Gogo in another way – i.e. enabling carriers operating between Europe and the US to connect to the ATG networks when flying over each landmass, while using Global Xpress over the Atlantic.

Responding to a query on this very topic, Pearce said, “The short answer is – it’s a great idea. Clearly we’re in the business of making sure Global Xpress is the fundamental global overlay for aviation passenger connectivity worldwide, so there is a natural opportunity for us to partner with Gogo. And you know Gogo is a Global Xpress VAR (value added reseller), so the interlocking nature between Gogo’s network domestically and Global Xpress has been established in principle, and I’d say in passing we’d be open to precisely the same arrangement with AT&T’s new network.”

He asked aloud, “Can you drive adoption of common technology such that a single radio on an airplane flying between the US and Europe could connect and roam into both ATG networks?”

We asked Gogo is it is interested in being service provider and indeed managing the ATG network for Inmarsat. Spokesman Steve Nolan said the Chicago area firm doesn’t comment on such matters.

However, responding to Inmarsat’s broader announcement, Gogo spokesman Steve Nolan added, “We still believe that Inmarsat is a satellite provider and that Gogo’s differentiation in the market is we are an aero communications service provider that provides end-to-end solutions. That means it goes beyond technology, managing the network, doing installations, getting STCs and all the other things you’ve been covering for a long time.

“What’s really interesting – and attendees of Gogo’s media/analyst event next week will see this – is that besides from having the ability to play with GTO, we’ll clearly paint the picture of what being an aero communications provider really means. Technology is just a portion of it. You have to manage bandwidth on the plane; manage all the equipment that goes onto the plane, the installation, the regulatory issues; there is a whole boatload of things that go into that, but what I think makes all the noise in this business is the technology announcements.”

Meanwhile, British Airways appears finally ready to shake off its previous reticence over offering inflight Wi-Fi, and emerge as a launch customer for Inmarsat’s new hybrid service. Company head of product and service Kate Thornton in a statement today confirmed the carrier is in discussions with Inmarsat “about leading Europe in a new era of broadband in the air. Starting with UK domestic routes Inmarsat intends to deploy Europe’s first ground-based 4G broadband network giving our customers the Internet access they expect on the ground while in the air.”

BA is otherwise remaining tight-lipped about the project, however. The carrier’s inflight entertainment and technology manager, Richard D’Cruze, told Runway Girl Network that other than confirming that BA is “working with Inmarsat to develop this service” the carrier is “not providing further details at this stage”. Similarly, a BA spokesman declined further comment.

BA is currently trialling Panasonic Avionics’ eXConnect Ku-band satellite-based connectivity service on one of its Boeing 747-400s. D’Cruze says the trial went live in March this year and will run for 12 months. “This is now flying globally on our network and we are evaluating feedback monthly,” he adds.

Rival UK airline Virgin Atlantic is trialling Arinc’s Cabin Connect inflight Wi-Fi system on an Airbus A330. Cabin Connect operates over Inmarsat’s L-band satellite-supported SwiftBroadband aeronautical service.

Elsewhere in Europe, both Aer Lingus and Lufthansa provide Panasonic’s eXConnect Wi-FI service on long-haul flights, and Aer Lingus is set to launch LiveTV’s regional Ka-band service on its Airbus narrowbodies. Norwegian offers Global Eagle Entertainment’s Ku service, while SAS is a customer of Panasonic Ku.

Lufthansa could not immediately be reached for comment on today’s announcement from Inmarsat. However, in years past, the German operator has indicated strong interest in equipping its short- and medium-haul fleet with connectivity. Inmarsat assures that “a number of European airlines are aligned with this vision”.

In order to provide its hybrid satellite/ATG service, Inmarsat has ordered a new S-band satellite, known as Europasat, which is expected to launch at the end of 2016. Inmarsat has teamed up with Hellas-Sat and contracted Thales Alenia Space for the construction of the satellite on a shared basis. Inmarsat says this will halve its cost burden to $200 million, which will mainly be incurred over a three-year period. It will invest a further $200-250 million over six years in developing the ground network.

Inmarsat says it has started applying for licences for the new connectivity service with EU member states and is optimistic about the outcome. “Inmarsat has received strong support for its applications from many EU telecoms regulators and remains confident that, on the back of its substantial financial commitment announced today, a consistent EU regulatory foundation can quickly be completed to support the deployment of these services for the benefit of EU,” it adds.

Additional reporting by Mary Kirby