Inmarsat launch: regulatory fudge or technical triumph?
Jun 30, 2017 by Kane Mumford


TagsDeutsche Telekom, Eutelsat, Inmarsat, MSS, ViaSat

When the Commission tried to encourage a pan-European paging market by setting aside the 169.4-169.8 MHz under the European Radio Messaging System, or ERMES, how could they have known that SMS was about to take off. The spectrum stayed very much set-aside for about 15 years while the legislative process was slowly reversed.

A similar thing could be said to have happened with the S-band. It stayed out of play until one of the satellite companies first worked out what to do with it and then set about doing it, which has taken almost ten years.

But Inmarsat’s new satellite has escaped the forces of gravity and member state lobbying and is now safely orbiting the earth, put there by rocket fuel and the London firm’s own lobbying force. Inflight Wi-Fi is on its way, for those lucky enough to be able to travel by jet in the first place.

This all started when the European Commission in 2008 obliged member states to authorise mobile satellite services in 60 MHz of spectrum in the S-band. The satellite component had to be integral to the operation of any service, said the Commission’s Decision.

Inmarsat and Eutelsat both gained 2 x 15 MHz of spectrum and Inmarsat eventually launched the complementary ground component (CGC) initiative in 2014, ploughing millions from its own balance sheet into the project.

Then something odd happened. A Commission advisory group held back the project, questioning whether it met all the legal requirements of the Commission’s decision.

It turned out that Germany, perhaps influenced by the company that would eventually become Inmarsat’s in-flight Wi-Fi partner Deutsche Telekom, was behind the regulatory inertia. This was thought to be because before DT and Inmarsat teamed up, the German operator has its own alternative inflight Wi-Fi wheeze – Direct air-to-ground communications (DA2GC).

Germany worked hard to keep Inmarsat’s hopes grounded, even going to CEPT to argue that the “MSS framework stipulates that complementary ground components are designed for when communications cannot be ensured between the terminals and the space stations.”

These concerns disappeared when DT joined Inmarsat to provide complementary ground components in the form of a network of around 300 LTE base stations.

More helpfully for Inmarsat, the other major European countries did not share Germany’s concerns, although PolicyTracker understands the London-based satellite company had to hit the road pretty hard to win the hearts and minds of other countries, although it was now firmly backed by the Commission in its continent-wide persuasion offensive.

One blip came when the Hungarian regulator rehearsed Germany’s old argument but agreement was reached here.

Eutelsat spokesman Wladimir Bocquet told the BBC that ViaSat and Eutelsat are looking to put a satellite with a total throughput of one terabit a second by around 2020 but fear that Inmarsat and DT will hold airlines captive in an “inferior service developed under a false prospectus”.

Inmarsat chief executive Rupert Pearce dismissed this as “utter tosh” and said his firm’s competitors are just sore because Inmarsat has “backed a cool piece of technology”.

The Commission created an environment where member states could be persuaded to go with Inmarsat’s plans and the ends will be delivered, even if the means appear to have been fudged. The problem is, the barriers to entry to this market are now about as high as Inmarsat’s new satellite.