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Viasat: Huzzah, we're going to the EU courts over airline broadband

Brussels court (no, not that one) comes up trumps for US biz

Viasat, US arch-rival of British satellite comms biz Inmarsat, has claimed victory in a Belgian court during a bitter continent-wide legal row over the proposed EU Aviation Network for in-flight phone signal.

After losing the first two rounds of its legal challenges against the EAN, Viasat is now delighted that the Brussels Market Court in Belgium has kicked three legal questions up to the EU courts to consider.

In a statement issued after the ruling was handed down, Viasat president and COO Rick Baldridge said: "The ruling confirms that Inmarsat has not complied with EU law, and has failed to make a mobile satellite service available to the required portion of the European population by the statutorily imposed deadline."

The Brussels Court of Appeal's four judges – named in the judgment as M Bosmans, K Piteus, C Verbruggen and D Geulette – said in a translated version of their ruling:

This is a question of interpretation which presents a general interest for the uniform application of EU Law, as the issue of (non) compliance with the coverage obligation provided for in Article 4, paragraph 1, c) of the MSS Decision [the EU ruling which created the EAN] is likely to arise in similar terms before other jurisdictions of the Member States of the Union, having regard to the numerous ongoing procedures concerning authorisations of the CGCs requested by Inmarsat and granted by [national regulatory authorities] in most of the Member States.

Inmarsat took a more measured line in its response to the judgment, telling The Register: "We note the decision by the Market Court in Brussels to seek clarification on the EU regulatory framework before taking a decision on the merits of the case. Inmarsat is confident that this clarification will confirm the previous decision by the Belgian regulator BIPT. The ruling does not impact the timetable for the European Aviation Network (EAN), nor the decision of national regulators across Europe, which have granted the necessary licenses for EAN to operate in their countries as a fully integrated satellite and ground network service."

The full judgment, in French, can be read here (PDF).

The EU Aviation Network is, as its name suggests, an EU project to create an aerial broadband network for airliners that consists of a number of ground-based stations along with a satellite for higher-altitude backhaul. The broad idea is that instead of being reliant on expensive satellite bandwidth, the EAN's 300 ground base stations and near-seamless satellite handoff will create a cheaper alternative for in-flight Wi-Fi on short-haul flights around Europe.

Inmarsat won the contract to supply the satellite for that network using spectrum awarded to it by each and every country over which the EAN is supposed to operate. Viasat argues that Inmarsat broke its licence conditions by using that spectrum, which it claims was originally awarded for a different purpose.

When The Register asked Baldridge whether his company was effectively venue-shopping to get around the UK Competition Appeal Tribunal's (CAT) December 2018 decision, he told us: "We feel that arguing this in the EU Court is fruitful."

"There's no doubt Inmarsat has the advantage of being in the UK [with the] UK courts," he added when we asked if he felt that Inmarsat had what Americans call "home-field advantage" when it won the UK appeal case. But he denied that if it won its legal challenges, Viasat would just waltz in and take up Inmarsat's vacated seat, saying the company aims for a re-run of the EAN contract award decision on what he described as a level playing field. "We're not trying to invade: we're trying to help regulators make good regulatory decisions. Our job is to take exception to [where that's not happening]."

Evidence shown to the CAT during the UK case last year revealed that just one airline had expressed interest in the EAN at the time – and even then it only wanted access to the ground component and not the satellite. Nonetheless, Inmarsat said that its (unnamed) launch customer will start passenger trials of the EAN "shortly". ®

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