How we did it: the European Aviation Network is one giant step closer

EAN is on track for launch

What is EAN?

The European Aviation Network is an integrated connectivity solution that combines high capacity satellite coverage with a complementary 4G LTE ground network. It’s the first of its kind – offering consistent, high-speed broadband coverage across all 27 EU states and Switzerland, United Kingdom and Norway. 

EAN’s new S-band satellite has now successfully completed its in-orbit tests and is ready to support inflight broadband – bringing EAN one giant step closer to its commercial launch. 

EAN has been designed specifically for high traffic flight routes and busy airport hubs, delivering a guaranteed minimum data rate to all aircraft. It will transform European passenger experience, delivering unprecedented service quality and connection speed at 35,000ft. From streaming movies to booking a hotel room, it means Wi-Fi can be just as good in the air as on the ground. Today’s passengers expect no less and now airlines can meet those expectations.

With air traffic forecast to double over the next decade, EAN is easily scalable to meet demand. Initially integrating Inmarsat’s multi-beam S-band satellite with approximately 300 Deutsche Telekom ground towers, capacity can be expanded rapidly to meet this growing demand.

On board, a cost-effective equipment package is available. Aircraft carry terminals which dynamically and seamlessly switch between satellite and the ground network to deliver the most effective service. With low installation and maintenance costs, and ultra-lightweight, low drag antennae, it is, perhaps, the most economically beneficial connectivity service of its kind anywhere in the world.

Why inflight connectivity (IFC) is a must-have, not a nice-to-have

We all carry multiple devices every day. And most of us have experienced the frustration of poor connectivity, even on a train travelling at less than 300km/h. Today, we want those devices to connect on an aircraft travelling at three times that speed, and at 35,000 ft. But what’s driving this demand?

With the meteoric rise of mobile has come all sorts of things; online shopping, entertainment on-the-go, instant communication and, above all, the ability to do all of it, anywhere, anytime. Consequently, consumers want to stay connected 24/7. With a recent survey revealing passengers would rather have reliable broadband than inflight meals and another finding that 69% of those in Europe would be willing to pay for it, there is clearly high demand for IFC. Connectivity is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.

Of course, high-speed IFC not only benefits passengers, from enabling inflight shopping to staying connected to family, but also offers a number of opportunities for the aviation industry, too. For airlines, it will provide a platform for innovative services like wireless entertainment, dynamic, personalised e-commerce and data-led advertising – creating new revenue streams and operational cost savings.

To make that all possible, Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom developed The European Aviation Network. In late 2016, Inmarsat initiated test flights using its EAN ground and aircraft components – to prove the system worked. It did.

The product of partnerships

Built for Europe, by Europe – partnerships across the continent are at the heart of EAN.

It’s a unique, multi-national initiative and the result of a partnership between two of Europe’s most innovative companies – Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom – both recognised experts in connectivity services. Together with other partners across Europe – Thales, Nokia, Cobham and ArianeSpace – a commitment to collaboration helped drive this project forward.

The ground network makes EAN one of a kind.

With the satellite overhead, around 300 complementary ground-based 4G LTE towers beam high-speed connectivity into the sky, across 30 European nations. These ground towers have to provide comprehensive coverage – but that means sometimes building them in challenging places, such as the small Greek island of Skopelos.

Inflight connections are established via small, on board aircraft antennas, which are constantly connected to the satellite and the ground towers and will dynamically switch to the best signal to ensure maximum capacity – so there’s no impact or interference with the service passengers receive in the aircraft’s cabin.

The satellite access station (SAS)

The Satellite Access Station serves as a robust and reliable gateway between Inmarsat’s S-Band satellite and the internet. In early 2017 a new EAN-specific SAS (based in Nemea, Greece) was set up and successfully tested and validated. It consists of a 13-metre antenna that provides feeder links to the satellite, a radio frequency sub-system and a radio access network provided by Inmarsat partner Cobham SATCOM. The infrastructure testing, using a satellite simulator, exceeded all expectations.

The new satellite

The result of thousands of design and manufacturing hours, Inmarsat’s new multi-beam S-band satellite is the brainchild of some of the world’s brightest scientists.  It’s a remarkable feat of human engineering but also a reflection of Inmarsat’s commitment to transforming aviation connectivity.

After lift-off, there’s no way of reaching the satellite to fix anything that goes wrong. So, when designing the satellite, there’s no room for error. To make sure it survives the rigours of launch – and eventually space – the satellite is put through extensive testing. This ranges from being subjected to extreme temperatures and violent vibrations to being battered by highly powerful soundwaves. Considering the soundwaves generated at a rocket launch could knock down a building, the satellite has to be extremely robust.

Now orbital, the satellite will soon provide ground-breaking connectivity on flights above Europe, starting with aircraft owned by our launch partner, International Airlines Group.

Getting the satellite to the launch pad

This was a monumental task.

The satellite itself is the size of a bus, secured inside a container. That container was then loaded onto a truck which carried it to the airport. This was done at night, from Thales Facility in Cannes. Progress was slowed as there were a number of illegally parked cars en-route that had to be towed away in order to get the convoy through. The team made it with the tiniest of margins. Once there, the container was loaded on to an enormous Antimov cargo plane and flown to French Guiana, where its journey into space began.

The Ariane 5

The satellite was loaded aboard Europe’s heavy lift launcher, the Ariane 5, engineered by Arianespace. The rocket has 77 successful launches behind it and can carry a payload of up to 10 tonnes. It reached speeds of more than 25,000mph to escape Earth’s gravity, using over 1300 tonnes of thrust to do so.

Once airborne, it headed for geostationary transfer orbit (GEO), some 117 million feet above the Earth, having launched from South America’s coast. 

The Ariane 5 is launched from the Guiana Space Centre, in French Guiana. This is an ideal location for launch. Firstly, because it is so close to the equator, meaning a shorter distance to GEO. But also because the launch centre is located right on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, providing a host of launch trajectories for the variety of missions conducted. 

Our Va38 mission blasted off at 21:15 UTC on June 28. After separating from the rocket, the satellite set a course for GEO. It remains there throughout its lifetime, providing high-speed broadband to aircraft across Europe.

EAN is coming soon.

Watch this space.