The European Commission (EC) is to allow allow the latest 3G and 4G wireless communication technology to be used by passengers on board aircraft flying over the European Union. The move follows the recent decision by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) of the United States to let passengers use mobile broadband services while in flight.
This means that from now onwards, spectrum for 3G (UMTS) and 4G (LTE) communications may be used. However, for safety reasons, passenger can only use the services above an altitude of 3,000 metres. Until now only 2G (GSM) has been permissible on-board aircraft flying in the EU, which is impracticable for sending large amounts of data (for example sending large attachments, downloading eBooks, watching video).
This EU decision creates the possibility for airlines – rather than a right for passengers - to allow the use of smart phones, tablets and Kindles during flights. It is up to airlines operating in the EU as to whether they will allow their passengers take advantage of this new option to use 3G and 4G in flight.
Passengers will make use of the pre-existing 2100MHzspectrum band for 3G and 1800 MHz band for 4G. In a separate development, the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) will issue detailed guidance on the use of electronic devices during take-off and landing by the end of November 2013.
What does this mean for airlines?
In response to increasing passenger demand, airlines will be able to develop new in-flight internet services. Airlines will remain in charge of what services they choose to equip their planes with (industry surveys indicate SMS and email are of greater interest to passengers than voice).
What does this mean for passengers?
If airlines take advantage of the new possibilities, passengers will have access to better internet services, at times when their aircraft is flying above 3,000m altitude. So if you want to surf social networks during your flight, or send emails with attachments, this decision makes that possible.
Facts about Mobile Communications On-board Aircraft (MCA) technology
Although still in its infancy, MCA is a growing industry, with data traffic increasing by over 300% between 2011 & 2012. MCA is identical to normal mobile roaming in that passengers are billed through their service provider. The tariffs applied usually correspond to ‘Roaming: rest of the world’ prices.
Wi-Fi is also used for MCA, but is not subject to specific rules because its low power does not pose interference risk with ground-based radio services.
MCA does not cover the communication between the aircraft and the ground, which is currently provided by satellite-based systems. New satellites should allow ten times greater capacity than what is available today.
Some European stakeholders are working on introducing a new ‘Direct air to ground’ (DA2G) broadband technology, which would bypass satellites.
How do MCA systems work?
The signal is received by an antenna on board the aircraft and sent to the ground network via a satellite connection. The signal is limited in power to ensure it does not interference with other communications.
The system is based on three main parts: the mobile terminals, the network control unit, and the aircraft base station.
Mobile terminals on aircraft: passengers increasingly wish to use their 3G or 4G mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops etc.) on board aircraft to transfer data; the amount of data transferred on board already exceeds voice data.
Network Control Unit (NCU): is mounted on board the aircraft and is a kind of jammer which prevents mobile terminals connecting to, and interfering with ground-based systems, and ensures they connect only to an aircraft base station .
Aircraft Base Station: the antenna to which mobile terminals connect; it takes the form of a cable running along the ceiling of the cabin.
Ryan Heath, European Commission spokesperson, said: "This EU decision gives airlines the opportunity to allow their customers to use their smartphones and tablets in-flight. We're saying there is no reason why passengers should be prevented from using their mobiles and their tablets during flights (when the plane is above 3,000m). Airlines remain in charge about whether they allow this during their flights or not.
"It's up to the airlines, but I can imagine a number of ways this could work. You could have quiet zones and communications zones, like many trains have today. Or limit the new possibilities to longer flights or to certain periods of the flight – for example to avoid sleep disruption," said Heath.