Inmarsat says EAN remains on track despite Belgium court decision

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Inmarsat says the launch of its European Aviation Network (EAN) remains on track despite a decision by the Belgium Market Court to annul its Complementary Ground Component (CGC) authorization to operate the hybrid air-to-ground/S-band satellite-supported inflight connectivity service in the country.

The Belgium court concluded that the Belgian telecommunications regulator, BIPT, did not conduct the required analysis under either Belgium or EU law to determine whether what Inmarsat claims are legally permissible CGCs [pdf Decision of the Market].

A spokesperson for Inmarsat suggests that the decision by the Belgian judge “was made purely on procedural grounds”.

“It was due to the Belgian regulator not confirming in its decision that the complementary ground network complies with certain conditions within the EC framework. The complementary ground network does comply with these conditions and this has been confirmed by other regulators including Ofcom in the UK and ARCEP in France,” says the spokesperson. “We are confident that the regulator will address the procedural issues raised and will expedite the reissuance of the authorisation.”

However, commercial launch of the EAN has technically already moved to the right; Inmarsat previously said the EAN would launch in the second half of 2017.

Carlsbad, California-based satellite operator Viasat believes that the ground portion of the EAN network “is supposed to be complementary to the satellite” not the primary means of transmitting data, and violates various EU and UK laws. It has been fighting the launch of the EAN on an EU Member State-by-state basis, including in Belgium.

The original spectrum for the network “was allocated after an anti-competitive pitching process in which Inmarsat decided to change the original terms of the tender”, alleges a Viasat spokesperson.

In December, Viasat took legal action against Ofcom in the UK over its decision to grant Inmarsat one of the authorizations necessary for the firm to operate its EAN-powered inflight connectivity service. Those proceedings are playing out at the Competition Appeal Tribunal.

In a statement about the Belgium court ruling, Viasat VP, global mobility Doug Abts says: “This ruling adds another major connectivity dead-zone to the EAN in a highly-trafficked EU air corridor, as the Irish regulator, ComReg, has publicly stated an investigation of the EAN is ongoing and has yet to issue a CGC license to Inmarsat.

“We applaud Belgium and those Member States that have taken a rational look at the legality of the EAN. Upholding the law is critical to maintaining fairness and ensuring robust competition that will result in the best possible consumer experience.

“We suspect Inmarsat may try to minimize the Belgium Market Court’s decision; however, we feel this ruling is an indication that stand-alone terrestrial use of the S-band simply is not what the European legislature intended.”

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Continues Abts: “This ruling is an important step in a long process towards obtaining final clarity regarding the legality of the EAN. We stand firm in our position that the EAN does not comply with various EU and Member State laws, and believe other Courts will follow the ruling and require a thorough evaluation of whether EAN complies with the law.”

European satellite operator Eutelsat is partnered with Viasat in the rollout of high-speed Ka-band inflight connectivity service in Europe. The service will compete with the EAN.

Eutelsat director of spectrum management policy Wladimir Bocquet says: “This decision confirms our understanding that the service must be predominantly delivered through a satellite component. We have always considered that the EAN does not fulfill the conditions of a mobile satellite system as defined by European regulations and that decision confirms our analysis.”

International Airlines Group – the parent company of Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia and Vueling – is the launch customer for EAN inflight connectivity.

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