Aircraft flying European routes will soon have access to Inmarsat’s European Aviation Network (EAN), a hybrid satellite/air-to-ground (ATG) inflight connectivity platform.
The system promises to offer passengers a high-quality, high-speed broadband service, similar to what they have on the ground.
But how will the system combine satellite and ATG?
The first of its kind in the region, EAN will seamlessly combine an S-band (2 – 4 GHz) satellite with a 4G LTE mobile terrestrial network.
To put that in perspective, Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband systems uses the L-band spectrum (about 1.6MHz), while its new Ka-band Global Xpress satcom system utilises frequencies around 30-40GHz.
This puts the maximum speeds from an S-band satellite somewhere between SwiftBroadband’s 432kbps and Global Xpress’s 30-50Mbps, probably similar to or slightly faster than SwiftBroadband.
EAN, a partnership between Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom, with the S-band satellite providing multi-beam pan-European coverage. This will use 30MHz (2 x 15MHz) of an S-band spectrum allocation in all 28 EU member states, plus Norway and Switzerland.
But how does it work?
On the ground Inmarsat says Deutsche Telekom will build and manage a broadband network of around 300 LTE ground station sites.
Once an aircraft reaches 10,000 feet the S-band connectivity will be combined with the 4G LTE ground segment. Inmarsat says switching between the satellite and ground will be automatically managed by the cabin systems, offering seamless services to passengers.
Inmarsat says this offers three advantages:
The same spectrum can be re-used on adjacent cells (three cells per site).Cells can be multiplied on demand without incurring the significant costs involved with satellite launches.
High capacity can be provided to each aircraft as Inmarsat expects peak data rates of around 75Mbps per cell across the European coverage area.
The company says that EAN will provide more than 50Gbps total network capacity.
It also says EAN will complement its Ka-band Global Xpress (GX) satellite network and will use Inmarsat’s existing satellite ground stations.
On the ground, the S-band satellite access stations (SASs) and Inmarsat’s central Network Operations Centre (NOC) will be linked by a private terrestrial network, referred to as the Inmarsat Data Communications Network (DCN).
Inmarsat says this network will support the signalling between ground network elements of the network management information as well as transport of actual traffic data.
But how will the satellite be used?
Speaking at the 2016 Aircraft eEnablement Connectivity and IFE Conference, David Coiley, Vice President Aviation, Inmarsat, said that the satellite will be able to cover gaps in the ground coverage.
“A ground cell has a range of about 150km at an aircraft’s cruising height, but there may be areas in Europe where there is no coverage,” he said.
Typical areas might be on routes from Ireland to Spain or Portugal, or into northern Africa, where you have to cross the sea and would lose access to the 4G LTE ground stations.
“The satellite will help fill those gaps, but also offers us added capabilities on the aircraft, especially in the cockpit perhaps in terms of Safety Services – an area that Inmarsat has always excelled at – or the delivery of data services such as EFB updates or weather data.
“Our spectrum allocation means Inmarsat is the only organisation able to offer an air-to-ground connectivity service in Europe.”
Coiley added that the ground segment and space segment will work hand in hand. The radio spectrum it had access to in its S-band allocation across 28 EU member states also helped it launch the whole concept of EAN with the EU regulators.
At AIX Hamburg in early April, Leo Mondale, Inmarsat’s President Aviation, said that its partnership with Deutsche Telekom for its satellite and LTE-based European Aviation Network (EAN) will have a commercial pilot service in place by mid-2017.
“Test cells will be deployed for testing in the UK, which should start in Q3 2016,” Coiley said.
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