Belgian court punches hole in Inmarsat’s European Aviation Network

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WASHINGTON — A Belgian court revoked approval for Inmarsat’s European Aviation Network in the country after fleet operator Viasat challenged the legality of its authorization.

The Market Court of the Brussels Court of Appeal on March 14 said it has annulled the Belgian Institute for Postal services and Telecommunications (BIPT) approval of Inmarsat’s use of terrestrial towers for the network, designed to provide Wi-Fi inflight for aircraft over Europe. The reversal threatens to rip a hole, albeit a small one, in the network Inmarsat completed just last month.

Inmarsat’s European Aviation Network, or EAN, consists of an S-band satellite payload launched last June and a “complementary ground component,” or CGC, of 300 cellular towers built across 28 European Union member states plus Switzerland and Norway by partner Deutsche Telekom. Six CGC towers cover Belgium.

The court wrote March 14 that it “Annuls the decision of the Council of BIPT of 29 June 2016 ‘concerning Inmarsat Ventures Ltd’s rights to use complementary ground components.’”

Carlsbad, California-based Viasat and Paris-based fleet operator Eutelsat have challenged Inmarsat’s use of a European Commission S-band spectrum license, arguing that what should be a predominantly satellite system supported by ground towers is in fact the opposite — a terrestrial connectivity system that uses a satellite component to justify its existence. Inmarsat disagrees. 

Seeking to upend Inmarsat’s network, Viasat and Eutelsat have chosen to fight on a country-by-country basis, blotting out patches of the EAN where nations side with their reasoning.

Viasat led the legal challenge alone in Belgium. In a March 20 statement provided to SpaceNews, the company praised Belgium’s decision.

“This ruling adds another major connectivity dead-zone to the EAN in a highly-trafficked EU air corridor, as the Irish regulator, ComReg, has publicly stated an investigation of the EAN is ongoing and has yet to issue a CGC license to Inmarsat,” Viasat said. “We applaud Belgium and those Member States that have taken a rational look at the legality of the EAN. Upholding the law is critical to maintaining fairness and ensuring robust competition that will result in the best possible consumer experience.”

Eutelsat, though not involved in the Belgium case, told SpaceNews the decision “confirms our understanding that the service must be predominantly delivered through a satellite component.”

“We have always considered that the EAN does not fulfill the conditions of a mobile satellite system as defined by European regulations and that decision confirms our analysis,” Eutelsat said.

Inmarsat hasn’t yet begun service with EAN, which has London-based International Airlines Group, owner of British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus and Vueling, as its inaugural customer. Inmarsat told SpaceNews March 21 that the EAN remains on track, and it doesn’t view the Belgian court’s decision as a showstopper.

“The decision by the Belgian judge was made purely on procedural grounds,” Inmarsat said. “It was due to the Belgian regulator not confirming in its decision that the complementary ground network complies with certain conditions within the EC framework.

“The complementary ground network does comply with these conditions and this has been confirmed by other regulators including Ofcom in the UK and [Autorité de Régulation des Communications Électroniques et des Postes] in France.

“We are confident that the regulator will address the procedural issues raised and will expedite the reissuance of the authorisation.”

Inmarsat plans to begin service with the EAN during the first half of this year.