Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Inmarsat plans new plane wifi service


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 wifi service.


There should also be applications in enhanced air traffic control.


British Airways are in advanced discussions to be a launch customer.


The financial markets have just been informed of the project.


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.


Inmarsat has partnership agreements with GoGo, and will now develop its own air-to-ground system for 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. It has been looking for the right business opportunity ever since.


The expansion of Inmarsat into this new area 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.


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