'Hello, I'm on the plane': EC says yes to in-flight calls and mobile broadband
Tuesday, 19 November 2013 17:20

in flight callsEuropean Commission gives permission for use of 3G and 4G mobile phones, tablets and computers above 3,000m.

Taking a phone call at 30,000 feet could soon be a reality following a European Commission (EC) approval of 3G and 4G services mid-flight.

The EC has approved the use of 3G and 4G services for mobile data, calls and text messages above 3,000m (9,840ft), the point at which the "climb period" ends after take-off above the flight ceiling of small, unpressurised aircraft. At that point it would allow mobile phones, tablets and laptops with a mobile data plan to be switched out of “airplane mode” and used.

The move follows the European Aviation Safety Authority’s (Easa) approval on Thursday of the use of personal electronic devices during all phases of flight, including take-off and landing. It also comes after US airlines began allowing passengers to use electronic devices during take-off and landing after fears of interference with in-flight systems were shown to be unwarranted.

“This EU decision creates the possibility for airlines – rather than a right for passengers – to allow use of smart phones and tablets during flights,” said the EC in a press release.

A mobile network in the skies

Not to be confused with permission to connect to land-based mobile phone networks – which will actively be blocked by a type of mid-air mobile signal jammer, to prevent interference with ground networks – the approval of 3G and 4G data services aboard planes will allow airlines to essentially rebroadcast their own mobile network in the skies, very much like a mid-air femtocell, linked to the ground via satellite connections.

Airlines have been able to broadcast internet services using Wi-Fi inside the hull for some time, but the step up to traditional cellular network broadcast services will allow passengers to use their mobile phones to make voice calls over 3G and 4G, as well as mobile data.

3G or 4G on aeroplanes? Wait at gate

Passengers will be billed via their mobile phone service provider with tariff rates typically based on international roaming, although exact pricing will be set by the individual mobile networks. “This ruling gives equipment manufacturers approval to use 3G and 4G spectrum for rebroadcast of mobile networks aboard aircraft, however, equipment manufacturers will still have to obtain certification from Easa before use,” said a CAA spokesperson.

“Passengers will not be able to use their 3G or 4G mobile phones on aeroplanes any time soon - we’re talking months not weeks here,” he reiterated. Some European stakeholders are working on introducing new “direct air to ground” broadband technology that bypasses satellites, and could provide an alternative link to the internet in the future.


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