LONDON/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Passengers on European short-haul flights are to be offered high-speed internet access using a combined satellite and air-to-ground network to be built by Britain's Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom.
The platform will cater for travellers in Europe, which includes some of the highest density air-traffic routes in the world, and provide levels of speed and coverage comparable to home broadband services, the companies said at a joint press conference.
German airline Lufthansa, which has so far offered wireless internet only on long-haul flights, will trial the service in 2017 as it seeks new ways to generate revenue from its passengers.
Pricing will depend on cabin class and ticket pricing, Chief Executive Carsten Spohr told journalists in Frankfurt. Lufthansa is to offer the new service on 180 of its planes.
Spohr said customers placed a high value on staying connected, with 85 percent willing to give up other amenities on board to get Internet coverage.
But the desire to connect did not extend to voice calls. "The explicit wish of our customers is not to allow phone calls on board, and I promise you we will guarantee this very last privilege of privacy," he told reporters.
Deutsche Telekom said it would build a network of 300 high-capacity 4G base stations across Europe using dedicated spectrum that would connect to aircraft, with coverage switching to an Inmarsat satellite when the flight was over the sea.
Chief Executive Tim Hoettges said the dedicated network of 4G base stations, which each have a range of about 80 km, would cost in excess of 100 million euros ($112 million).
Ahead of the hybrid network trial, Lufthansa said it would offer in-flight connections on European flights using Inmarsat's separate new satellite network GlobalXpress from 2016.
Analysts at Jefferies welcomed the announcements, although questions, for example on the split of revenue and costs, would need to be answered.
"While Lufthansa validates the commercial and technical proposition, the presence of Deutsche Telekom validates our view that Inmarsat is uniquely positioned as a 'strategic' cog in the final frontier of wireless," they said.
A air-to-ground network serving commercial aircraft has been offered in the United States by Gogo Inc since 2008. ($1 = 0.8936 euros)
(Reporting by Paul Sandle and Peter Maushagen; Editing by Keith Weir)