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Inmarsat to Roll Out In-flight Passenger Broadband

FILE - A passenger plane taking off from Reagan National airport in Washington, DC. (VOA/Brian Allen)
British satellite operator Inmarsat will roll out a new satellite and air-to-ground network to give passengers on European flights broadband internet access on seat back screens and on their own smartphones and tablets.

The company said British Airways, owned by International Consolidated Airlines Group, was in advanced talks to roll out the service, which will use a new satellite expected to be delivered for launch at the end of 2016.

“Inmarsat will deliver high-speed mobile broadband to the seat back or to the passengers' own mobile device, whether that's a laptop or a phone or a pad throughout Europe,” Chief Executive Rupert Pearce said in an interview on Thursday.

“This transforms the potential for connectivity for aircraft flying around Europe.”

The service will be on the same lines as in-flight internet pioneered by Gogo Inc in the United States, Pearce said. Gogo uses air-to-ground and satellite technologies to keep passengers connected in the air.

Europe shares many characteristics with the U.S. market, including a high density of short haul flights over land, Pearce said, and its network will use airwaves put aside by the European Commission for a continent-wide service.

Pricing would be decided by the airlines, Pearce said, and passengers could be charged by capacity or per flight, or monthly for frequent flyers.

“It's going to be at a rate that is commensurate with terrestrial services,” he said.

In-flight internet via satellite has been available for more than a decade from providers including Inmarsat, but it is expensive and connections have often been slow.

Inmarsat is partnering Hellas-Sat, another European satellite operator, to launch the new S-band Europasat satellite, reducing its share of the costs to about $200 million.

The satellite, built by Thales Alenia Space, owned by Thales and Finmeccanica, is expected to be delivered for launch at the end of 2016, Inmarsat said.

Pearce said it would also spend $200 million to $250 million on the ground network components for the service.

Inmarsat is also building a new high-capacity satellite network, called Global Xpress, which Pearce said could integrate with the European network to give global coverage.