European Commission (EC) policy, in its drive to advance the “Single Digital Market” — and therefore seamless operation of services across European Union (EU) borders — has encouraged a greater diversity of delivery mechanisms for aeronautical passenger connectivity, seeking to enable terrestrial backhaul in addition to satellite. The benefits of commercial choice are clear if the market can take them up, but this may not be without some risk. How soon could we see additional connectivity options harmonized in Europe? And will this put Europe ahead of the United States? Since initiation of the ConneXion by Boeing service roughly 10 years ago (since failed), connectivity providers have knitted together patchwork Ku-band satellite capacity across the globe to support passenger connectivity services, principally on long-haul flights. More recently, Ka-band has been enthusiastically touted as its replacement. Despite Ka’s higher throughput, take-up by connectivity service providers and airlines has lagged behind proponents’ expectations. Ka has also faced some delays on the regulatory side, principally at the ITU. L-band was simply never a viable solution for bandwidth-hungry consumer broadband on aircraft.
Noting the expense of satellite connectivity, and that allocated bands in 1900 – 1920 MHz and 5855 – 5875 MHz were going unused in Europe, the EC mandated the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) to conduct technical interference studies for potential use of broadband Direct Air-to-Ground Communications (DA2GC, also known as ATG in the U.S.). CEPT noted that satellite and DA2GC solutions could be both competitive and complementary. While the decision is focused on use of these bands over continental Europe only, and principally on intra-European flights, an aircraft might carry satellite capability for use over oceans and an ATG system for use over the European landmass (and potentially the United States.)
CEPT has completed its technical study of DA2GC, suggesting possible harmonization at the EC level and an allocation of the bands to selected users. The final draft reports that such systems are planned for deployment by 2017. Harmonization is not a sure path to success, however.
Another subject of EC harmonization measures, the allocation in 2009 of the S-band (2 GHz MSS with Complementary Ground Component, or CGC), resulted in enforcement proceedings at EC level and a negotiated delay in service launch while the operators work out how to deliver compliant, licensed services. One of the operators selected for the S-band spectrum, Inmarsat, now proposes somewhat controversially to use the CGC for aero connectivity services. If this is successful, we may see S-band aero connectivity services by December 2016; however, the EC is said to be facilitating agreement still among member states on commonly-accepted use — some six years after spectrum award.
At the same time, the EC has sought to rationalize spectrum granted for various purposes through an inventory last year, and to harmonize frequency band use for other broadband technologies needing spectrum. If the S-band spectrum is not brought into use, the EC could still suspend the spectrum award.
Assuming success of DA2GC and aero CGC, however, Europe could outpace the United States in expanding connectivity options. Aero CGC is not currently on the table for the United States.
Adding terrestrially based capacity options to those already available by satellite could help propel the European aero connectivity sector, and it will become clear how many paths to aero connectivity the market can support. However, there remains some uncertainty whether the planned timelines are reliable given the vagaries of European harmonization and spectrum management. VS
Nina Beebe is director for emerging markets at Access Partnership in London. She assists satellite service integrators, operators and others in securing market access and licenses on a global basis.