This is bad news and good news for OnAir, in-flight broadband and telephony: You know it's bad when Reuters misses the key point in a story. In this article about Inmarsat announcing a launch date for its third satellite--its Asia/Pacific geostationary orbiter--to complete its fourth-generation, broadband satellite network, two key facts were missed. First, the third bird should have been in the air as long ago as 2005. Last year, it was expected to launch in the first half of 2006. Now we're looking at late 2007.
The second critical fact is that while Reuters dutifully reported the fact that Inmarsat's 4G network covers "85 percent of Earth's landmass," the network does not cover the Pacific Ocean, in large part. While Inmarsat has tried to bill its 4G network as being the first affordable, targetable worldwide broadband network, using beamforming arrays that aren't fixed for the life of the satellite, it's pretty clear that aviation and maritime use have to form a chunk of the service's revenue. There are generally mobile broadband alternatives in all but remote areas that would be cheaper than what Inmarsat calls BGAN (broadband global area network), except at sea and in the air.
The third satellite's launch is tied, in this story, to Inmarsat's deal with Aces International to offer handheld satellite phones in Asia.
Now this affects OnAir because the Airbus/SITA joint venture, which incorporate the assets of Tenzing Communications, based their in-flight cellular and broadband platform on the 4G service. When I spoke to OnAir's CEO recently, I said he must be extraordinarily patient. He said they were in it for the long haul. Now that haul is even longer. The company will launch extensive European services in 2007, however--pending regulator approval--starting with an Air France plane factory equipped with Inmarsat's 4G avionics system and an OnAir picocell. And they scored the 200-plus fleet of Ryanair planes, too.
But they can't serve Asia or US-Asia trans-Pacific routes, which I believe were a big market for Connexion's service due to the flights' duration. OnAir's competitor Aeromobile can provide cell service over Inmarsat's globe-spanning third-generation network, which operates about 1/8th as fast, and thus limits the number of simultaneous calls per flight to a relatively small number. Still, Aeromobile is talking about a near-term launch over Asia, and just announced a trail with Qantas.