Inmarsat European ATG network on track for 2017 deployment

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David Coiley, Inmarsat's VP Aviation.
David Coiley, Inmarsat’s VP Aviation.

Inmarsat’s Europe-wide hybrid satellite and air-to-ground (ATG) inflight connectivity network is on target for a Q1 2017 launch.

That was the message from David Coiley, Inmarsat’s VP Aviation, who was speaking at London’s Aviation Festival on Tuesday 15 September.

He said the network would offer “great flexibility and suitability” for narrow-body operators in two to three years time.

The hybrid S-band satellite and ATG system will offer two 15MHz chunks of spectrum and utilise 4G LTE technology. Commenting on an earlier speaker who had joked that satellite systems need a “canoe” fitted to the fuselage to work, Coiley said that its European Aviation Network would use more discrete antennas, much as Gogo’s ATG system in the USA.

The service will offer up to 10 times less latency (delay) than satellite networks and up to 75 Mbps speeds. Deutsche Telekom says that it is building 300 new LTE transmitter sites, with 80km range, across Europe.

“The antennas will be small, lightweight, low drag and low cost. The total cost of ownership will be superior to any existing satellite service,” he said, adding that Inmarsat is not abandoning its existing L-band SwiftBroadband and upcoming Ka-band Global Xpress services.

SwiftBroadband, which has provided the inflight connectivity backbone for many airlines with its 432kbps speeds, will become the weapon of choice for aviation safety services (air traffic control) once it receives its final certification later this year. Safety services are currently being trialled by Hawaiian Airlines using a Cobham Aviator S terminal – the S standing for “safety”.

SwiftBroadand Safety will enable voice and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System/Future Air Navigation Systems (ACARS/FANS) data transmissions when aircraft are flying over oceans, improving safety and efficiency in oceanic airspace.

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The system enables the fast and efficient transfer of data messages using Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband connectivity via a secure, dedicated “pipe” to the cockpit. The ACARS message is encapsulated into an IP “message”, which is then stripped out on the ground before being fed into the ACARS data network (in this case ARINC’s).

In terms of commercial aircraft, GX will better suit wide-body aircraft flying on trans-continental routes and those outside Europe.

A small lightweight flat-panel material antenna for GX is being developed by Kymeta, which may suit narrow-body aircraft, but availability is said to be “two to three years away”.

Coiley added that Inmarsat’s three-satellite GX network should be fully tested and globally available in Q4 2015, with Honeywell’s JetWave equipment being certified in Q1 2016.

“The European Aviation Network will have a coordinated roll-out across all 28 EU members states in Q1 2017,” Coiley reiterated.

He added that the service will be both data and voice (GSM) capable, but Inmarsat would respect airlines’ wishes in terms of whether they would allow in-flight telephony.

“This is a cultural thing,” he said. “Telephony is very popular in the Middle East, but there is less interest over here.”

He also hit back at claims there would be insufficient spectrum across the whole of the European Union for the system to work, saying “spectrum is not a problem”.

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