European Aviation Network quietly ramps up despite objection

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Team EAN is like a locked box when it comes to discussing particulars about the rollout of the inflight connectivity service on British Airways, but multiple partners in the program told RGN last week at the Aircraft Interiors Expo that a large number of installs have already taken place in preparation for launch.

Asked for specifics, Inmarsat’s new aviation business unit president Philip Balaam said via telephone, “For actual dates, I’m going to kind of kick this into the long grass and say, you know who our launch customer is. They are very sensitive about us indicating about timing. However, you are right, we are installing at pace, at very high pace. I don’t know if anyone has given you the scale of installs, but … a very significant part of what we need to do is already done.”

Some stakeholders in the European Aviation Network, including Deutsche Telekom, feel certain that the hybrid ATG/S-band supported connectivity service will go live by this summer, but Balaam would not be nailed down, assuring RGN only that, “2018 will be the year of full EAN deployment. I am going to have to push you back to talk to other people about exactly [when]. We’ve been asked to be extremely cautious on that point.”

Should the go-live date stretch into the second half of 2018, Inmarsat will find itself several months past its original planned launch date of late 2017 (a timeline expressed in Inmarsat’s own prior messaging. Balaam’s predecessor, Leo Mondale, also told RGN in September 2017 that the launch was “imminent”).

Balaam admits that Viasat’s efforts to prevent the launch of the EAN seems to have been effective in slowing things down a bit. Carlsbad, California-based Viasat, which has been rolling out a competitive high-capacity Ka-band satellite connectivity service in Europe via its KA-SAT-leveraging joint venture with Eutelsat, believes the ground portion of the EAN violates various EU and UK laws. It has been fighting EAN’s launch on an EU Member State-by-date basis, including in Belgium, where it met with some recent success in the Belgium Market Court.

Stressing that Inmarsat “can’t control what Viasat or anyone else for that matter does” in their attempts to slow down EAN’s launch, Balaam says, “I think what we’ll see is that starting to tail off”. He refers to the Belgium Market Court decision as “the Belgium kerfuffle” and reiterates Inmarsat’s stance that the court’s annulment of Inmarsat’s complementary ground component authorization is nothing more than “a procedural thing; there’s nothing fundamental. We’re not concerned at all about that side of things.”

Given Eutelsat’s surprising recent decision not to invest in the ViaSat-3 EMEA satellite, but rather to tap Thales for another high-capacity satellite of its own, Inmarsat’s Balaam says,

I suspect that they’re going to have maybe not quite as much support from their French partner as they may have in the past. But hey, I have no idea, and we’ll just have to see what shakes out on that point.

He notes that the EAN is “one of the rare big European infrastructure projects which has been considered a true European project, so whether Deutsche Telekom, Nokia, Thales, Arianespace, Inmarsat, Airbus, the efforts involved, it has obviously been backed by the European Union and commission, so it’s different than a lot of different projects.” Moreover, “there are linkages to other programs around ATC, the Iris project”.

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In terms of ensuring there is ample capacity to support the type of connectivity experience that passengers increasingly demand, he says, “Okay, you have a scare resource. You’ve got spectrum, how can you use that in the most effective way possible? If you can use the capability of satellite, add in the frequency reuse on the ground, you can multiple by tens of hundreds the capacity of the system with the same amount of spectrum; that’s what Europe was looking for.” And additional cell tours can be added to increase capacity in the coming years.

“The advantage that we have” that the United States does not, he notes, is that the EAN project benefits from having “a significant chunk of spectrum available and also technology has moved on, so the stuff that Deutsche Telekom and Nokia has done is quite different than what was done a generation ago, and that will continue.” Nokia’s technology is, of course, now reportedly attracting Google.

Meanwhile, Balaam is optimistic the group will see rapid EAN take-up beyond BA. He says he’s finding himself in “weekly meetings with airlines”. People were holding back before, he says, and that’s no longer the case. “I think the demo we did with Deutsche Telekom at the Mobile World Congress was absolutely striking. You’ve got people doing FaceTime calls between planes, which is pretty impressive.”

Such an accomplishment is indeed impressive, though not unique to inflight connectivity. Your author remembers when Viasat and LiveTV-later-Thales in 2013 unleashed the power of high-capacity Ka-band service on a JetBlue media flight out of New York JFK. Journalists seated within a row of each other on the aircraft were easily able to FaceTime with one another in-flight. (Meanwhile, Viasat’s Don Buchman insists to RGN that the firm’s global coverage play will not be affected by Eutelat’s decision not to invest in ViaSat-3 EMEA satellite, which among other things will compete in aero against the EAN.)

For his part, Balaam emphasizes that the EAN is, “A European project and so what’s best for the European citizens, the European consumer, that’s the underlying bedrock of why this project lives in the first place.”

Deutsche Telekom showcased the EAN’s lightweight antenna hardware at AIX. Image: Mary Kirby

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