A recent win for Inmarsat in the ongoing dispute over the European Aviation Network (EAN) will not dissuade Viasat from challenging the Inmarsat license in court once again. EAN is the hybrid air-to-ground (ATG)/S-band satellite network which aims to support inflight connectivity on the short- and medium-haul aircraft of British Airways and other European carriers, and will be tested by Lufthansa.
“We are not surprised by the Belgian regulator’s decision to reissue Inmarsat a new CGC [complementary ground component] license,” said a Viasat spokesperson, noting that Viasat successfully challenged the Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications’ (BIPT’s) last decision in the courts “and we will challenge this latest decision as well”.
The stakes are high and pit European providers against US providers during a time when relations between the EU and the US are complicated by politics and threats of tariffs.
The main EAN providers – Inmarsat (satellite) and Deutsche Telekom (ground) – are both European, at least for now. Inmarsat is a British company, but there is no indication that the looming Brexit would affect this partnership. The network will cover all 28 member states of the European Union, as well as Switzerland and Norway. Inmarsat describes EAN as enabled by “regulatory innovation in the European Union.”
In this dispute, what one party describes as innovation the other describes as a violation of basic free-market principles. As Viasat sees it, the way in which the spectrum for EAN was licensed sets a problematic precedent that may ultimately affect connectivity and communications in markets beyond Europe.
“This case is important because it involves the bedrock principles of both fair competition and respect for the law,” said the Viasat spokesperson. “Inmarsat was awarded an exclusive license to operate a mobile satellite system; a license it received for free in exchange for making various social commitments to help bridge the digital divide in the European Union. Nearly a decade later, Inmarsat has unilaterally decided to use its free spectrum to build an air-to-ground network instead. If such illegal use of spectrum goes unchallenged, we believe it will harm consumers and competition, as well as set a dangerous precedent whereby companies can obtain licenses by promising regulators that they will deliver a system they never actually provide.”
Frederik van Essen, Inmarsat Aviation Senior Vice President of Market and Business Development, questions Viasat’s motives.
“We believe that ViaSat is motivated solely by their desire to remove the European Aviation Network (EAN) as a competitor to their own commercial ambitions,” he told RGN.
“EAN complies with the relevant EU Framework and we remain confident that their challenge to our use of the S-band spectrum has no legitimate basis. We continue to work constructively with the European Commission – which awarded Inmarsat the innovative radio spectrum – and the national regulators. There have been extensive public consultation processes throughout Europe, including input from Viasat, and time and again national regulators have decided to issue all requested S-band licenses. The re-issue of the license to operate EAN’s complementary ground component in Belgium by the Belgian Institute for Postal services and Telecommunications (BIPT), only months after their initial license was annulled by the Belgium Market Court on procedural grounds, underlines this. We remain on track for commercial service launch to passengers later this year.”
While Inmarsat is pushing forward with its plans, Viasat remains confident that it can win its case.
“We anticipate the court will once again find that BIPT has unlawfully granted Inmarsat a license to operate its EAN in Belgium,” the Viasat spokesperson said.
For European consumers, who have been hungry for in-flight Wi-Fi availability, what matters is that the services are strong and reliable. Both parties in this dispute promise to deliver that and the Court will have to decide if there’s enough room in Europe for all.
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