Inmarsat plans EU-wide 'hybrid' network for plane wi-fi

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UK satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat has announced a nine-figure investment to boost broadband connectivity in aeroplanes over Europe.

The London-based firm will link aircraft to the internet via cellphone towers on the ground that have been modified to point skywards.

A new spacecraft will augment the system, ensuring passengers experience an unbroken onboard wi-fi service.

Inmarsat says its hybrid network will also support a range of other services.

These are likely to include high-resilience communications that can be used by government agencies in security situations or in disaster response.

For the in-flight application, British Airways is in advanced discussions to be a launch customer.

It will be hoping that the ability to drive connections through a ground tower-infrastructure, rather than just through a traditional satellite network, can increase dramatically the capacity of those connections while at the same time substantially reducing the cost of the wi-fi tariffs offered to passengers.

Major projects

Inmarsat, whose role in the search for the lost Malaysian jet MH370 has brought it international prominence, is Britain's biggest space company.

It is currently in the process of rolling out its £1bn ($1.6bn) next-generation mobile satellite communications network called Global Xpress.

This is series of big spacecraft that are being placed around the planet to provide connectivity to customers in remote locations.

Schematic Inmarsat is talking about 300 towers being needed across the EU nations

These will include ships at sea, oil and gas installations, deployed armed-forces, aid agencies in disaster areas, and TV news crews reporting from trouble zones.

It will also include aeroplanes, but the project announced on Thursday will be a very different proposition - geographically, because it is restricted to Europe; and technically, because of its use of cell towers.

This so-called "air-to-ground" architecture mirrors the approach taken by GoGo in the US, which has been providing in-flight broadband internet to commercial jet liners since 2008. AT&T is now developing a rival system in North America.

Inmarsat is expecting first-mover advantage as it seeks to bring a hybrid, satellite/air-to-ground system to Europe.

It is able to do this because it has access to the necessary tranche of radio frequencies.

These are in the S-band. The European Commission granted Inmarsat a licence to operate in this part of the spectrum in 2009, and it has been looking for the right business opportunity ever since.

"The ability to deploy terrestrial technology to serve aeroplanes gives you dramatic capacity and cost-per-bit advantages [over traditional satellite only services]," explained Rupert Pearce, the CEO of Inmarsat.

"We can deliver over 40 gigabits per second across an air-to-ground network in Europe. That translates to incredible capacity, so the whole plane can get out their device and start furiously using the internet. We've seen American consumers taking to the GoGo experience in droves - they love being connected on aircraft, and they get a really rich experience at a decent cost," he told BBC News.

National challenge

The new satellite that forms part of the integrated network will be called Europasat. Its construction cost will be shared by another, but non-competing operator, Hellas-Sat, who will use the platform to deliver TV to homes. The manufacturer will be Thales Alenia Space and it should be ready for launch in 2016.

Inmarsat says that planes using the S-band satellite/ground-to-air network will be switched to Global Xpress seamlessly when they leave European airspace.

Of all Inmarsat's revenue streams, aero services are currently growing fastest - in double digits. Market-watchers expect that trend to continue.

Europasat The cost of 5.9-tonne Europasat will be shared between Inmarsat and Hellas-sat

Inmarsat's total outlay for the new network, it told investors, is likely to be near £450m.

Its confidence will be seen as further proof of the health of the UK space sector.

Government ministers have identified satellites as one of the "eight great technologies" that can help rebalance and grow the economy.

They have committed to put in place the absolute best conditions to enable large, medium and small-sized space companies to flourish.

Government and industry have challenged themselves to build a sector that is exporting products and services that are valued at £25bn per year by 2030.

Science and space minister David Willetts said: "I am delighted that UK-based Inmarsat is leading the creation of a network to provide airline passengers with in-flight wi-fi.

"Today's announcement is an important investment in new infrastructure that will promote productivity and growth in the UK and across Europe. I welcome the fact that this service has been enabled by the EU's approach to harmonising the necessary spectrum across EU member states.

"This approach enables companies to build business cases that can deliver Pan-European benefits".

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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