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A step closer

The European Aviation Network inches closer to completion with the launch of its first satellite. Ian Harbison reports on the progress

On 28 June, an Ariane 5 rocket was successfully launched from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, carrying two satellites. The first was the GSAT-17 telecommunications satellite for the Indian Space Research Organisation, whilst the second was a ‘condosat’, a single satellite with more than one payload. Built by Thales Alenia Space using a Spacebus 4000C4 platform, it carried the Hellas Sat 3 and Inmarsat S EAN payloads.

Hellas Sat will provide direct-to-home TV broadcast and telecommunications services, as well as the distribution of high-definition and ultra-high-definition video content. Inmarsat S EAN is the space segment of the European Aviation Network (EAN), which has been specifically designed to provide internet access to aircraft over the dense European airspace, and addresses the challenges of serving this market with satellite-only inflight connectivity solutions.

Once in its initial orbit, the satellite’s solar panels were deployed to provide power, and system checks were then carried out by Thales Alenia Space. After that, it was gradually moved to its final geostationary position at 39° East, over Saudi Arabia, from where its coverage area will be Europe, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Inmarsat’s Network Operations Centre in London will control the payload via a Satellite Access Station at Nemea, just over 90km southwest of Athens. This will be run by OTE, the largest telecommunications provider in Greece and a member of the Deutsche Telekom Group. The SAS contains a 13m antenna that provides feeder links to the satellite, a radio frequency sub-system, and a radio access network, which is provided by Cobham SATCOM using Broadband Global Area Network technology, in sync with the Mobile Satellite Services terminals on the aircraft. The SAS infrastructure is already in place and testing was completed back in February 2017. Nemea is already being used for Inmarsat’s Global Xpress satcom service.

For the complementary ground component (CGC) network, Deutsche Telekom is using adapted Nokia LTE base stations deployed with specific antennas supporting the EAN frequency. The adaptations are to support aircraft travelling at some 650kts, which needs compensation for the Doppler effect (frequency shift), and at high altitudes. Each base station will provide three cells, each of which will have an average range of more than 80km, up to a maximum of 150km, with a slight overlap for continuous coverage.

There will be around 300 stations spread across 28 EU countries, Norway and Switzerland, located close to the major airways that make up European airspace, and in high demand areas.

Deutsche Telekom says installation of the CGC has now been completed in seven countries (Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Austria, Greece and Slovakia) and there is good progress across the rest of Europe, with most of the sites having already been finalised. The company expect most of the stations to be operational by early 2018, when the service is expected to enter commercial service. The complementary LTE network will then provide more capacity to the coverage of EAN satellites in the dense areas of European airspace.

The launch customer is International Airline Group (IAG), and the initial aircraft to be fitted with the system will belong to British Airways, with the first three already being modified. Andrea Burchett, IAG’s Group Head Inflight Commercial, says they are the first of an eventual 341 narrowbodies in the group’s airline fleets to be fitted for EAN, with British Airways (132 aircraft), being followed later by Vueling (125), Iberia (45) and Aer Lingus (39). IAG aims to have 90% of its short haul fleet complete by early 2019.

The company says there is continuous independent testing of the satellite and ground networks, as well as flight tests with Dassault Falcon 20 aircraft of AVdef which were fitted with the LTE antenna for initial trials (see Aircraft Cabin Management, January 2017), and others.

Frederik van Essen, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Inmarsat Aviation, says there are lots of parallel activities at the moment, but integrated testing of the complete system should start in October. He explains that it is not possible to select only satellite or ground segments – the two are interconnected. This means an airline will have to fit a small, fixed satcom antenna on top of the fuselage and two small blade antennas under the fuselage, one forward and one aft of the wing, with the system switching automatically between them to maintain contact. This should ensure continuous coverage when the aircraft is manoeuvring (usually after take off and coming in to land), as it is more likely that the line of sight between the antenna and the satellite or ground station will not be blanked by the wing or tail section. >>


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