Top EU court rejects European Aviation Network challenge, but legal action continues

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TAMPA, Fla. — Inmarsat’s competitors have vowed to continue pursuing legal action to block its hybrid satellite and cellular European Aviation Network (EAN), after the European Union’s highest court rejected their challenge.

French satellite operator Eutelsat and Viasat of the U.S. objected to how Inmarsat, which is based in the U.K., was using its S-band spectrum license from the European Commission for EAN.

With its terrestrial telecom partner Deutsche Telekom of Germany, EAN pairs an air-to-ground network of cell towers with an S-band satellite payload to provide inflight connectivity services.

Eutelsat filed a challenge with Conseil d’État, France’s highest court focused on government policies, in 2018 to argue that the heavy use of EAN’s ground network conflicted with the intent of the S-band license.

However, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which interprets EU laws for member countries, dismissed this April 15.

It ruled that a mobile satellite system does not necessarily have to be principally based, in terms of capacity of transmitted data, on the satellite component of that system. 

The CJEU also clarified how a ground-based station can be classified as a ‘complementary ground component (CGC) of mobile satellite systems.’

The ruling marks a significant milestone for Inmarsat, which has faced years of legal challenges over EAN.

“Inmarsat welcomes the ruling of the European Court of Justice rejecting our competitors’ arguments aimed at limiting the operation of the European Aviation Network,” Inmarsat general counsel Brad Swann said.

“EAN is an asset for Europe as a whole and it is proving very popular with passengers and airlines.”

EAN has continued to operate as legal proceedings played out in the background. 

In January, Inmarsat said it had activated the service on more than 250 aircraft, including airline British Airways’ entire short-haul fleet.

The connectivity services have been made available to more than 20 million passengers, and an Inmarsat official said it plans to add thousands more European travelers in the coming months.

“The ruling provides further certainty to EAN users and confidence to other airlines considering adding EAN to their aircraft in future,” the official told SpaceNews

Legal action continues

The CJEU decision will now flow through local courts in Europe to guide their judgments.

The wording of the ruling from the EU’s highest court was not definitive, according to Viasat president and chief litigation counsel Colin Ward.

“We stand by our position that the EAN is illegal,” Ward said.

“Inmarsat has deployed a mobile satellite system that does not actually depend on the real and specific use of satellite communications—an element required by today’s ECJ decision. We will continue to advance our arguments in national courts and pursue this case to its completion on the merits.”

Ward told SpaceNews: “I think that Inmarsat needed to win this case, because obviously if they hadn’t the court would have declared the EAN illegal.

“But the court was I think very careful not to say the opposite, which is that the EAN is legal.”

Viasat has open legal cases in Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy. Eutelsat took the lead with the legal action in France.

A Eutelsat official said: “We stand by our view that the system deployed by Inmarsat does not comply with EU regulation as described by the Court. We will continue to consider our options as the case pursues its review through the national courts.”

Meanwhile, Viasat is working towards closing a deal to buy Eutelsat out of their European joint venture, which includes the KA-SAT broadband satellite and a wholesale distribution business.

The U.S. operator last year said it is buying the 49% it does not already own in Euro Broadband Infrastructure (EBI) for 140 million euros ($166 million).

The deal comes as Viasat plots a three-satellite, next-generation constellation called ViaSat-3, which will transform the Californian company into a global operator. 

The first ViaSat-3 satellite, which will target the Americas, is slated for launch in the first quarter of 2022. 

A ViaSat-3 satellite for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) will follow six months later, augmenting KA-SAT. The third ViaSat-3 satellite will cover Asia.

The constellation aims to provide three terabits per second of throughput to meet rising demand for connectivity services worldwide.