We don't really have in-flight wi-fi in Australia yet, although both Virgin and Qantas are working on it. It's far more common throughout Europe and the US, but a consortium of European companies is taking a different approach to the new network it's building: instead of satellites dozens of kilometres above the Earth bouncing signals from ground stations to planes and back, the European Aviation Network uses 4G LTE beamed directly upwards from mobile phone towers.
Nokia, Thales, satellite and nation-scale network operator Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom are working together to develop the European Aviation Network, which has just completed a series of test flights in the UK using a dedicated LTE network setup and a high-speed satellite.
It's a markedly different approach to the traditional in-flight satellite internet setup — which uses a radome mounted on top of a passenger plane to communicate with geosynchronous satellites — instead using a transmitter/receiver mounted on the lower fuselage of the plane to communicate directly with ground-based LTE base stations. There's also a satellite element — that's where Inmarsat comes in — using an S-band satellite still under construction.
Because the EAN cuts out the step from plane to satellite and satellite to ground station as part of the hybrid process, it's able to achieve faster speeds and lower latencies rivalling regular mobile broadband. The first live connection that Nokia and Deutsche Telekom trialled in the air was a high-resolution video conference with both participants connected directly through the EAN's LTE network — which, in theory, could mean you could be video-chatting with your friend on a different plane in a different part of the world.
Planned for mainstream introduction into European air carriers by the middle of next year with 300 LTE stations stretching across the continent, the European Aviation Network is a great idea — it makes in-flight wi-fi faster and more ubiquitous. Now we just need exactly this across all of Australia, please.