British Airways to offer hybrid satellite, 4G broadband in Europe

Satellite communications specialist Inmarsat will provide broadband services for Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia and Vueling using its hybrid EAN network

British Airways parent International Airlines Group (IAG) will introduce an in-flight mobile broadband service on short-haul flights at four airlines in the coming months, after reaching an agreement with Inmarsat to be the launch customer for a next-generation air-to-ground connectivity service in Europe.

The group had previously announced it would be offering a service from Chicago-based Gogo on transatlantic flights from 2017.

Its deal with Inmarsat – two years in the making – will see it retrofit 341 Airbus A320 family aircraft with wireless broadband connectivity services, beginning in 2017. These will include 132 British Airways, 125 Vueling, 45 Iberia and 39 Aer Lingus planes. IAG said it aimed to offer services on 90% of its aircraft by 2019.

“We are giving our customers the fastest connectivity you can get on any aircraft,” said IAG chief executive Willie Walsh. “Having announced Wi-Fi for long-haul flights earlier this year, we are now equipping our airlines’ short-haul fleets with in-flight broadband access.

“Connectivity is essential because it is what our customers demand and IAG will be the first European airline group to offer high-quality air-to-ground Wi-Fi on short-haul flights.”

The service will run on Inmarsat’s dedicated European Aviation Network (EAN), which differs somewhat from the pure satellite services offered by Inmarsat elsewhere in the world, and the likes of Gogo.

EAN, a hybrid network built in partnership with Deutsche Telekom, will combine a satellite service provided by the yet-to-be-launched S-band Europasat-Hellas3 satellite with a complementary ground-based 4G long-term evolution (LTE) network, which is currently under construction.

Inmarsat claims this combination will provide increased network capacity for the more densely trafficked European routes, and will enable it to offer 4G-like connectivity of “unparalleled speed and quality”, with connection speeds similar to those received on the ground.

Read more about in-flight connectivity

“EAN is a game-changer for the millions of airline passengers who have been cut off from fast, reliable and consistent broadband access during flights in Europe,” said Inmarsat president Leo Mondale.

A number of airline customers have picked up Inmarsat’s services in recent weeks, including Air New Zealand, which will soon begin testing a satellite broadband service powered by the supplier’s new global GX satellite constellation, in the hope of rolling out Wi-Fi on its long-haul flights towards the end of 2017, and on domestic services within New Zealand the following year.

The airline’s CEO, Christopher Luxon, said Air New Zealand had held off deploying in-flight Wi-Fi because it operates a lot of long-haul flights across oceans with poor-quality satellite coverage.

“We have patiently worked with partners until we feel comfortable that a service is available that meets the high expectations of our customers,” said Luxon.

“Proving flights on a partner company test aircraft have now given us the confidence to introduce what we believe will be the world’s most reliable in-flight connectivity.”

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications