Satellite communications firm Inmarsat has announced that it is to deliver a new high-speed broadband service for airline passengers in the EU. Connectivity will be delivered by both a ground-based network and a new satellite. The service could launch as early as 2016.
Inmarsat tells Gizmag that the service will provide a high-speed internet service to airplanes by connecting, when possible, to both its terrestrial network and to its satellite, Europasat, simultaneously. According to the company, it will be the first truly hybrid network for providing high-speed internet access to aircraft.
The terrestrial ground component network will be made up of a new infrastructure put in place by Inmarsat and existing infrastructures that have been licensed by partners. It will be rolled out on a country-by-country basis. Most existing in-flight Wi-Fi services use only terrestrial networks, such as Inmarsat's partner Gogo in the US. The addition of Europasat will allow Inmarsat to provide a much faster service.
Europasat will use frequencies in the S-band wavelength that is widely used for weather radar, ship radar and communications, including NASA's communications with the International Space Station. The use of S-Band will also provide a much greater capacity for the service.
Europasat will join Inmarsat's 50 MB per second Global Xpress satellites in orbit, which use the Ka-band to deliver high-speed broadband across the world. A plane's connection to Europasat will switch to Global Xpress as it leaves Europe to ensure continued connectivity.
Europasat will actually be one payload on a host satellite shared with another provider, Hellas-Sat. The manufacture, launch, insurance and operation of Europasat are expected to cost Inmarsat around US$200-250 million, which the company says is about half of what it would have cost to deploy the satellite without a partner. The development and deployment of the ground-network is likely to cost that again.
Inmarsat is currently in discussions with British Airways, which is expected to be the launch customer. The company says it will remain "agnostic" about how the service is provided to the end user. Carriers can negotiate to brand the service as their own or simply present it as a third party Inmarsat service. The service will be available on UK domestic flights to begin with.