Inmarsat flings latest Wi-Fi-on-airliners satellite into orbit

European Aviation Network connectivity project continues

Inmarsat has successfully launched its latest satellite, which will form part of the grandiosely named European Aviation Network for putting faster Wi-Fi aboard airliners.

The 5.7 tonne Hellas Sat 3-Inmarsat S EAN bird was launched into orbit by French firm Arianespace from French Guiana, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, at 2215 BST yesterday.

“We are delighted that the Inmarsat-S EAN satellite has been successfully launched. This is a significant milestone for Inmarsat and the many leading European companies that are involved in the project, including Deutsche Telekom, Thales Alenia Space, Arianespace, Cobham SATCOM, Nokia, OTE and others,” said Leo Mondale, president of Inmarsat Aviation.

Speaking to the press at Inmarsat’s Old Street, London HQ last night, senior veep for strategy and biz development Frederik van Essen described the process as a “huge controlled explosion”.

The satellite itself, built by Thales-Alenia, will operate in the S-band and is designed to last for around 15 years. It will form part of the European Aviation Network (EAN), an EU Commission initiative to ensure that holidaymakers business people can gaze at cat videos while being served superheated microwave chicken do vital internet-connected business on the move.

Essentially a joint venture between Deutsche Telekom (DT) and Inmarsat, the EAN has two main components: the ground-based radio access network and the satellites up above. The theory is that seamless connectivity between ground and air can be achieved by carefully managing the handoff between ground stations and satellites. Both share the same frequencies, the 30MHz allocated by the EU for this project, within the S-band.

How it works

Each aircraft is fitted with a satellite receiver and an LTE antenna. At altitude, the satellite receiver picks up the nearest beam and uses that for providing internet connectivity. Lower down, the aircraft talks to the 300 LTE ground stations instead; the system operates on a similar principle to how your mobile phone hands off between cell stations. The ground stations are positioned along airways used for routing airliners, we were told.

Within the aircraft, passengers connect to the in-flight Wi-Fi, having coughed up the appropriate price first, and – in theory – see no difference between satellite and ground connectivity.

Inmarsat operates a “meet me point” where traffic from both satellites and ground stations is collated and then sent to and from internet service providers and the wider internet. David Fox, DT’s veep of in-flight services and connectivity, summarised the intended effect as “LTE on steroids” over dinner as we waited for the launch.

The Inmarsat satellites will be combined with DT’s 300 ground stations to give “complementary” internet access across 30 countries: the EU’s 28 member states, along with Norway and Switzerland, we were told. Apparently the UK will definitely remain a part of this network after Brexit.

One of the biggest engineering challenges that had to be overcome for this project was coping with the Doppler effect between ground stations and the moving airliner, something that isn't so much of a problem with max speeds of ~250kph with ground-based transport.

How fast? And how much?

Speeds theoretically available from the satellite service were given as around 70MbpS download and 5Mbps up. A couple of weeks ago your correspondent was seeing speeds of 30Mbps with 600ms latency on a demonstration flight put on by Honeywell, which used Inmarsat’s existing network. Even that flight had a maximum of 25 people aboard using the Wi-Fi at any given point, as opposed to the 190 passengers the average medium-sized airliner carries these days, and so far your correspondent hasn’t found anyone willing to talk about network contention.

Emirates airline has what would appear to be a similar system successfully deployed aboard its Airbus A380 and Boeing 777 long-haul fleet. Passengers pay for access – this is the big sell for airlines with the Emirates and the new EU system, finding new ways to fleece the captive self-loading freight – but your first 10MB of data are free on Emirates, and the next 500MB cost you just $1.

“Emirates is subsidising or waiving the high cost of buying data to serve our passengers on routes across six continents. We foresee that free Wi-Fi onboard is the future standard for all our customers, something that will require no charge or limitations,” said an Emirates veep, Patrick Brannelly, back in 2015. Evidently the EU Commission doesn’t feel that its pockets stretch towards pouring $20m per year into the pockets of satellite operators and mobile network operators, as Emirates does.

The EAN’s launch customer is airline group IAG, whose member brands include British Airways, Vueling, Aer Lingus and others. The project’s backers hope to deploy the EAN hardware on 90 per cent of IAG’s short-haul fleet – 300 airliners – by 2019. BA has faced sharp criticism from passengers after it began charging for food and drink aboard its flights without dropping ticket prices to compensate. ®


Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2017