Broadband takes to the skies

GTB Editor
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The European Aviation Network is a ground-breaking and hotly anticipated broadband solution for airlines that integrates satellite technology and an LTE-based terrestrial network to deliver the seamless, high quality connectivity that passengers want

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The final stages are underway in the run up to the launch of the European Aviation Network (EAN) later this year. 

The EAN is a game changing piece of innovation, set to enrich the experience of air passengers across the continent. It represents the world’s first integrated satellite and complementary ground network and will provide seamless in-flight broadband for the benefit of the European aviation industry and for the millions of people that travel by air across Europe every year. The quality of broadband service that these passengers can expect will give them an online experience that matches what they are used to in the office and at home. 

The initiative is the result of a unique collaboration between a diverse team of partners across Europe. At the heart of the collaboration are network operator Deutsche Telekom and satellite specialist Inmarsat who together with technology partners including Nokia and Thales have successfully conducted a programme of test flights that prove that the project is on track and ready to take to the skies. 

“The EAN is a great example of European collaboration at its very best,” says Dr Rolf Nafziger, senior vice president for the International Wholesale Business Unit of Deutsche Telekom AG. “It has involved a lot of work between many partners, including many of Deutsche Telekom’s international affiliates. It is not unknown for projects with this many partners to run into difficulties and become delayed. This project, however, is on track to take off at the end of this year, and that is something to be proud of.” 

The European Aviation Network is the first of its kind worldwide, innovatively combining satellite coverage with a complementary ground network to deliver cost effective, scalable capacity where needed across all the countries of the EU, as well as Norway and Switzerland. Unlike current in-flight connectivity solutions it features much higher data speeds, high levels of capacity and low operating costs. It is also easily scalable so that it can expand along with demand on high-density flight routes.

A blend of excellence

The ground component of the network, developed and built by Deutsche Telekom, is centred on an adapted version of Nokia’s LTE base station which links with a specially developed base station antenna for air coverage. 

“The EAN blends not just different skill sets but many different technologies,” says Nafziger. “The S-band satellite network combines with nearly 300 ground stations that we have been developing across Europe and which will be operated by us. With this unique infrastructure we will be able to deliver unprecedented services combined with high service quality and assurance that can be managed very cost efficiently. This is the first network that covers the whole of Europe through one provider on the ground and one in space.” 

Final stages are progressing fast. With Inmarsat’s satellite now orbital, most of the remaining preparati

ons revolve around the ground part of the network, which is progressing to plan: “We are working tirelessly to complete the work on all the European countries the network will reach,” explains Nafziger. “We have our first customer onboard, the International Airlines Group (AIG), which is the parent company of Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia and Vueling.  IAG has already started equipping its aircraft and aims to have 90% of its short haul fleet complete by early 2019. We have conducted several test flights and have trial sites active in the UK, Netherlands and Germany, amongst other countries. 

After the technical launch will come the commercial launch and a push to sign as many airlines as possible up to the EAN. “There will also be a push to educate customers and  to make sure that they are aware of how to use the service and log into it by connecting to our portal and downloading our app,” he adds. “Airline passengers are still very much used to the fact that they need to switch their phones, tablets and computers either to flight mode or completely off when they are on a plane. That’s now changing so that they can be seamlessly online.” 

Nafziger believes that the ability to provide a true broadband experience will give the European aviation industry a major competitive boost: “You have satellite communications on planes today, but what we are developing is so much better because it combines these two components – satellite and ground.”

Nafziger is confident that the EAN will prove a winner not just with the European airline sector but with both business and leisure travellers who will notice immed

iate dividends: “The network will feature high bandwidth and low latency,” he says. “It is a very customer-centric network, providing best connectivity in the air. The network will be a particular advantage to business customers, meaning that they can continue to work just as if they were on the ground.”

Once the EAN is live and scaled up, Nafziger believes there may be an opportunity to extend the idea into other regions. Certainly he thinks the project will be of great interest on other continents. But those looking to follow in the EAN’s footsteps will be hard pushed to assemble such a prestigious team of participants: “With this project we’ve given ourselves a great advantage by bringing together all this knowhow through market-leading partners,” he believes. “We were very much looking for the leaders in all the different fields as we consider ourselves to be the leading European telco.”

From the start he says the object was to look only at the best technologies available, and believes that will remain the case as the network evolves: “When 5G is deployed we will look into the possibility of extending EAN to that,” he expects. “There is a lot of innovation still to come, not only on the technology side but also on the services that will run over the network. It will always be about providing the best possible seamless connectivity, from the departure lounge to in the air, either through us or through our affiliates.”

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Looking ahead, Nafziger is expecting that a wider EAN ecosystem will develop around the network, with start-ups producing a raft of additional applications for the convenience of travellers: “You’ll no doubt see apps from third parties that deal, for example, with booking a rental car before you arrive, or providing information to relatives on exactly when you are landing,” he anticipates. “I expect a variety of new services that make life for the traveller a matter of being always connected to the end points of their choice. Certainly the airlines are very eager and looking forward to this innovation. The EAN team is actively selling the concept to them. Customers too will be excited, especially when they see how easy it is for them to get connected.” 

Rolf Nafziger has been responsible for the International Wholesale Business Unit (IBU) of Deutsche Telekom AG since his appointment as senior vice pesident IBU in 2013. His organization includes all operations in carrier sales, mobile wholesale roaming and the inflight business of Deutsche Telekom. He also oversees the European Aviation Network project – the world’s first integrated satellite and LTE-based ground network for passenger connectivity. 

A technical triumph

Since the European Aviation Network was first announced in September 2015, steady progress has been made to address a number of technical hurdles, as well as to test and perfect new and untried combinations of technologies.

This process has seen Deutsche Telekom and Nokia collaborate to deliver the ground component of the project and its 300 antenna sites, while in parallel Inmarsat, Thales and Cobham SATCOM have implemented the satellite side and the onboard equipment. 

The ground element of the EAN differs from regular LTE networks as it needs to work at speeds of up to 1,200km/h.  At cruising altitudes of 10 to 12 km, the network can rely on cells with a radius of up to 150km. 

Additionally, Nokia and Deutsche Telekom have jointly set up a full end-to-end ground network reference system in Stuttgart in Germany, including components and integrated on-board equipment from Thales, to prepare for technical challenges, for example compensation for the Doppler effect that comes from high aircraft speeds. 

Regular testing has been key throughout. Testing conducted so far has validated the overall performance of the EAN system, including the on board equipment provided by Thales and the ground network provided by Deutsche Telekom and Nokia. Flight trials in the UK, Germany and elsewhere across Europe are continuously being conducted to make sure that the systems are successfully validated and optimised.