This week we reported ViaSat’s criticisms of Inmarsat being allowed to deploy an in-flight broadband service in the 2 GHz spectrum reserved for EU mobile satellite services (MSS) nearly ten years ago.
The pending court case will tell us if these criticisms amount to legal wrongdoing, but the real issue is whether this initiative is a good use of 60 MHz of prime spectrum.
Why did the EU set aside this spectrum on a pan-European basis? First, the market was failing to provide rural broadband and MEPs intended the legislation to address this. Second, it was a way of stimulating and providing extra competition in the market for data services, most notably mobile TV.
So does Wi-Fi on aircraft meet these objectives? It isn’t addressing a market failure – there are other solutions for in-flight internet. Neither does it enhance competition in mobile data services.
On the other hand, ten years ago, MSS was a plausible solution and the “best guess” for EU regulators and many other experts. Technology development is very hard to predict: you will win some and lose some.
So what lessons could we learn? Perhaps the devil is in the detail. If you want rural broadband, the legislation needs to spell that out.
Satellite has long timescales, but technology and its uses can change quickly. Perhaps any new MSS-type arrangement needs a sunset clause – if the services aren’t operational in five years, then the agreement needs to be reviewed.