Mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat, Germany’s Deutsche Telekom and Europe’s largest airline, Lufthansa, on Sept. 21 announced a strategic partnership under which Deutsche Telekom will build and operate 300 LTE ground stations in Europe to provide air-to-ground connectivity to airline passengers using Inmarsat’s satellite-based European Aviation Network.

Under the agreement, Lufthansa has committed to using Inmarsat’s just-launched Global Xpress Ka-band satellite service for European flights starting in mid-2016, and to conduct flight tests of the air-to-ground service in 2017.

The announcements are the first concrete steps in what Inmarsat has always described as a crucial partnership network that will co-finance and co-manage the European Aviation Network beyond the construction and launch of the satellite link.

Inmarsat, Lufthansa and Deutsche Telekom said the ground network of 300 LTE sites will have an effective signal-transmission range of 80 kilometers, compared to 10 kilometers or less for conventional LTE sites.
Inmarsat and partner Arabsat of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, are jointly building a satellite that Arabsat will use for conventional telecommunications. The satellite also will carry an S-band payload for Inmarsat’s European aeronautical service. Under its license with the European Commission, Inmarsat is required to offer service to all 28 European Union member states.

Missing from the program, which Inmarsat has called EuropaSat, have been deep-pocketed partners willing to act as anchor customers and investors willing to finance the ground network of signal relay stations.  The Deutsche Telekom and Lufthansa agreements start to fill in that gap in the program.

“The provision of reliable, consistent broadband connectivity aboard our planes, which will match that of high-speed home broadband in terms of speed and quality, is of extreme importance to us,” Lufthansa Chief Executive Carsten Spohr said in a statement.

The companies said the Deutsche Telekom network of 300 LTE, or long term evolution, sites will have an effective signal-transmission range of 80 kilometers, compared to 10 kilometers or less for conventional LTE sites.

As is the case with Chicago-based Gogo Inc.’s air-to-ground service in the United States, the Inmarsat/Deutsche Telekom network will operate with aircraft once they reach an altitude of about 3 kilometers. Aircraft connections will move between Inmarsat’s S-band satellite and the Deutsche Telekom-operated ground network so as to provide continuous connectivity to passengers.

Gogo began with an air-to-ground network in the United States and is now adding a satellite link while expanding abroad using leased satellite capacity. Gogo uses Ku-band links.

Inmarsat is starting from the opposite end  — it had a global network which was satellite-based — to arrive at about the same place as where Gogo is headed, but in Ka-band and using its own satellite network instead of leased capacity.

Inmarsat’s EuropaSat satellite payload — Arabsat calls the satellite Hellas-sat-3 — is scheduled for launch in late 2016 and will operate at 39 degrees east longitude in geostationary orbit.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.