Inmarsat makes headway on new air-to-ground service for Europe


For the last several years US airlines have been able to avail themselves of a relatively simple air-to-ground (ATG)-based inflight Internet offering because a dedicated network of cell towers – operated by Gogo – stretches across the mainland. In a clear endorsement of the ATG model for aircraft flying over land masses, satellite operator Inmarsat earlier this year announced plans to roll out a pan European hybrid ATG/S-band solution. The company now reports that it is making strong progress in securing the necessary approvals from EU states in preparation for launch with airlines, including potentially British Airways.

“We have an EU-wide license to use the S-band spectrum and we are in the process of gaining the necessary authorizations from each member state to utilize this spectrum for our EU-wide hybrid satellite and ATG aviation network,” Leo Mondale, president Inmarsat Aviation, tells RGN. “We already have authorizations from 23 member states and we are progressing well to meet our target to launch the network in 2016.”

London-based Inmarsat has traditionally worked with a variety of partners, which resell its satellite connectivity services to the aviation, maritime and other industries. But in the case of the hybrid ATG/S-band network for Europe, the company is strongly considering the option of offering the service directly to airlines. The move could be seen as being somewhat controversial because Inmarsat is also in the process of rolling out a global Ka-band satellite constellation to support inflight connectivity, and has selected several partners to distribute the so-called Global Xpress service, including Gogo, OnAir and various IFE companies. Detractors of Inmarsat note if the company offers its ATG/S-band service directly to European airlines, it will effectively limit the amount of business that GX partners can score in Europe.

Mondale says Inmarsat is “in constant communication with the partners in our eco-system to develop the best possible offer to airlines”, but he stresses that airlines are in the driver’s seat. “Who we partner with and how we deliver the solution will depend on each airline and its specific requirements. One of the routes we are considering is going direct to airlines, when it is most appropriate for the airline.”

Inmarsat remains open to exploring creative offerings that would enable international airlines to use the European ATG/S-band network when their aircraft are flying over Europe, use GX for over-ocean satellite connectivity service, and then roam into Gogo’s ATG network when in the US. “Our aim is to provide the best solution for airlines, and that means the most appropriate connectivity for airlines everywhere in the world. Part of that is ensuring seamless exchanges between satellite and ATG systems where appropriate, and we are in discussion with potential ATG partners globally to that end,” says Mondale. He notes that Gogo is already one of Inmarsat’s Value Added Resellers and Inmarsat “already work closely with Gogo”.

In order to execute something like this, the GX constellation of satellites needs to be in place. On 8 December 2013, the first GX Ka-band satellite – positioned on an ILS Proton Breeze M rocket – successfully launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But the launch of two more Boeing-made GX satellites to round out the global offering have been delayed due to problems with the Proton rocket. They are now scheduled to launch early next year.

Explaining the work that takes place in advance of launch, Mondale says, “The satellite undergoes rigorous simulation testing of launch conditions before it even leaves the Boeing factory in Los Angeles, both through shaking and acoustic testing. The acoustic testing uses nitrogen pipes to subject the satellite to up to 150 MHz. Between the two tests, the satellite is exposed to much more harsh conditions that it will experience during the launch process. Once it arrives at the launch site, the satellite has a four-day health-status test to determine it hasn’t been damaged during the three-day flight from Los Angeles.

“The satellite is then fitted to the launch vehicle adapter, a lightweight carbon fibre structure designed to minimize weight and carry extremely high loads during the lift off high acceleration phases. The Boeing/ Inmarsat engineering team then spend several days reviewing data and ensuring that no identified problems with similar spacecraft or flight hardware may question the flightworthiness of the satellite, before it is fuelled. The fuelling itself takes two days, including decontamination and sealing. Following pneumatic and electrical testing of the launch vehicle, the satellite is then integrated into the vehicle, ready for launch. The vehicle itself is also subjected to extensive system testing, right up to the point of launch.”

The testing process for Inmarsat’s next two GX satellites, F2 and F3, “will be very similar to the processes followed for the successful F1 launch”, adds Mondale.

The pressure is on for a flawless execution of these satellite launches. The GX service already faces stiff competition from a trio of inflight connectivity providers – Panasonic Avionics, Gogo and Global Eagle Entertainment – which use broad beam Ku-band spectrum, and intend to exploit High Throughput Satellites (HTS) with spot beams when they’re launched in the coming years. A further delay to GX will allow these three connectivity providers to vastly broaden their footprint. And indeed, some industry observers believe airlines have already shown clear favoritism for Ku-supported connectivity.

No company likes to speak in hypotheticals, but we posed the following question to Mondale – if one of the next two launches fail, would Inmarsat focus on offering GX regionally to the aero world until the spare is ready and a global offering is viable?

“As with any satellite communications company we look to maximise our assets. Therefore, if, for any hypothetical reason, GX is not ready for global service in the early part of the second half of 2015, we would obviously consider options for utilising the assets we already have. However, we do not anticipate any such contingency being required,” he says.