Van Essen said: “The European Aviation Network (EAN) is finally giving Europe the connectivity that it's been waiting for in aircraft. And it's a unique system, it combines satellite connectivity with the ground components, so towers on the ground, and you're basically flying in between that. So we've got you covered all the time, and you have Wi-Fi connectivity in the cabin and it's going to feel like your connections on the ground.”
He added: “The systems that are around today are satellite-only systems, and often they have been pulled together from technology that was used for other purposes, so it's more a gimmick than a really reliable, consistent service. [This] is a major step forward – it's been designed specifically for this purpose, it's for aviation only. And it's going to give you that consistency of service that's actually needed as a passenger to count on it, but even more for airlines to actually build services on top of it.”
According to a study by London School of Economics (LSE), in-flight broadband has the potential to unlock $8.2 billion in ancillary revenue in Europe by 2035.
Van Essen says the reaction from airlines has been “pretty amazing”, particularly as the technology has been scaled down to be small and very light.
International Airlines Group (IAG), which includes airline brands such as British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus and Vueling, is the launch customer for the new service and has already commenced installations of EAN equipment on aircraft.
Van Essen adds: “Now, for the first time this will enable them to also put this on regional jets, or on small regional aircraft, even business jets, and maybe even drones in the future. This is opening up a vast new market for them, which they haven't been able to serve up until now.”
The EAN has faced roadblocks. Rival Satellite operator ViaSat continues to challenge the EAN, saying that Inmarsat is “misusing spectrum,” gaining an “unfair competitive advantage” and creating a “monopoly for European in-flight connectivity”. It saw some recent success in the Belgium Market Court.
However, Inmarsat has said the network will be available for airlines to offer commercially in the first half of 2018.