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. 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.
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.