Friday, October 13, 2017

ViaSat Prep Court Fight with Ofcom Over Satellite Broadband for Aircraft

satellite broadband uk

Ofcom's decision this week to grant Inmarsat a wireless telegraphy licence for ground based stations using the 2GHz band (here), which will support a new Satellite based superfast broadband network for air travellers, has triggered ViaSat to prepare legal proceedings against the regulator.

The new European Aviation Network (EAN) that Inmarsat is building, which has already won support from various airlines, is something that should make in-flight WiFi connectivity a lot faster once it's fully deployed.

However ViaSat has frequently accused Inmarsat of "misusing [the] spectrum" and thus gaining an "unfair competitive advantage", which they say is allowing the company to create a "monopoly for European in-flight connectivity" (here). The issue stems from the fact that the relevant radio spectrum was initially awarded in 2009 for a different purpose than it is now being used.

Originally the radio spectrum was licensed to two companies in order to help improve rural broadband and emergency services (phone) coverage, although several years passed without much development. Since then various EU and UK regulators have agreed that the licence can be used to help build the EAN via new ground-based stations, which ViaSat and partner Eutelsat both argue is unfair as they could also offer similar services but "weren't able to bid."

The regulators now find themselves in a difficult position because they have granted key permissions and Inmarsat has thus committed huge sums of money to build a new network based upon those commitments, which many airlines are expecting to be delivered. Reversing that decision now would cause significant damage.

Frederik van Essen, Boss of Inmarsat Aviation, said (FT):

"We consider ViaSat's claims to be entirely without merit and fundamentally misconceived. Their strategy has had no impact on our preparations, and we remain on course to commence commercial services with our launch customer in the first half of 2018."

Flexibility in licence conditions is nothing new and so far Ofcom seems to be happy with what Inmarsat are doing, which means that at present the Satellite operator is not doing anything obviously "illegal." ViaSat's President, Rick Baldridge, said, "Are there rules or are there no rules? Can we use our Ka band licence for 5G? The telco guys would say no and rightly so."

Apparently ViaSat's legal challenge against Ofcom will begin "imminently" and a decision against the regulator could conceivably also have an impact on flexibility in other licences for different services.

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