Eutelsat takes French telecom regulator to court over Inmarsat’s EAN license

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Updated at April 27 at 3:51 p.m. Eastern with a statement from Viasat.

WASHINGTON — Continuing its country-by-country fight against Inmarsat’s European Aviation Network, French satellite fleet operator Eutelsat is returning to its home country regulator to challenge Inmarsat’s recently granted authorization.

Eutelsat on April 25 initiated proceedings with France’s Conseil d’État (Council of State), the nation’s highest court focused on government policies, to contest French telecom regulator Arcep’s authorization of Inmarsat’s ground-based antennas for inflight connectivity.

“Eutelsat contests the legality of this decision both in terms of substance and form,” spokeswoman Marie-Sophie Ecuer told SpaceNews in an April 26 statement. “Eutelsat firmly believes that the public interest is not served by this decision since the service offered by Inmarsat to airlines in no way contributes to combat the digital divide in France or more broadly in Europe. Yet this was the regulatory goal underpinning the decision to grant the license to Inmarsat.”

Arcep approved Inmarsat’s European Aviation Network in February, allowing the hybrid system of satellite and cellular connectivity to provide internet access to aircraft flying over France. Inmarsat, with partner Deutsche Telekom of Germany, finished installing the network’s 300 LTE towers across all 28 European Union member states plus Switzerland and Norway earlier this year. EAN uses those towers along with an S-band satellite called Inmarsat S EAN launched last June to deliver 75 Mbps connections to aircraft.

Eutelsat and Carlsbad, California-based Viasat have each challenged Inmarsat’s use of a license from the European Commission — the executive arm of the European Union — claiming that Inmarsat is using a mobile satellite services (MSS) license for a system that is predominantly cellular in nature. Having been unsuccessful in persuading the European Commission, Eutelsat and Viasat have instead gone nation to nation to disrupt EAN.

In March, Viasat won a solo effort in Belgium to overturn Inmarsat’s EAN license granted by the nation’s telecom regulator IBPT.

That ruling, Ecuer said, “confirms our interpretation of European regulations.”

Inmarsat has downplayed Eutelsat’s and Viasat’s opposition as a last-ditch effort to discredit a system with widespread European regulatory approval.

“Inmarsat is delivering the EAN system in accordance with the MSS S-band framework established by the European Institutions and implemented by the national regulatory authorities,” Inmarsat said in an April 26 statement to SpaceNews. “We consider the action being taken by Eutelsat to be entirely without merit.”

“Inmarsat maintains that these claims are intended solely to undermine our legitimate business interests, while strengthening their own competitive position in the tendering processes that are currently underway with European airlines.

“EAN is ready for commercial service with both the satellite and complementary ground network fully tested,” the company added.

Viasat and Eutelsat are partners on inflight connectivity. Viasat is a 49-percent owner of Eutelsat’s Ka-Sat broadband satellite over Europe, and Viasat’s ViaSat-2 satellite has coverage that extends from North America to Europe for unbroken coverage of popular North Atlantic transcontinental flight paths.

Viasat and Eutelsat’s partnership is less robust than it was in the past, however. Three weeks ago, Eutelsat chose to forgo an investment in a powerful 1-terabit satellite Viasat planned for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and instead purchased its own 500-Gbps satellite from Thales Alenia Space with a focus exclusively on Europe.

Viasat on April 27 provided SpaceNews the following statement:

“Eutelsat’s action initiated with the Council d’Etat contesting Arcep’s decision to allow Inmarsat to operate its European Aviation Network in France supports our position that the EAN does not fulfill the conditions of a mobile satellite system as defined by European law. Eutelsat’s actions are further confirmation that lawsuits are likely to continue in multiple jurisdictions until final legal clarity is obtained.”