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Surfing in the sky: Commission gives airlines green-light for 3G and 4G broadband services on board aircraft

European Commission - IP/13/1066   14/11/2013

Other available languages: FR DE

European Commission

Press release

Brussels, 14 November 2013

Surfing in the sky: Commission gives airlines green-light for 3G and 4G broadband services on board aircraft

The Commission has adopted new rules that allow the latest wireless communication technology to be used by passengers on board aircraft flying over the European Union.

This means that from now onwards, spectrum for 3G (UMTS) and 4G (LTE) communications may be used above an altitude of 3000 metres. Until now only 2G (GSM) has been permissible on-board aircraft flying in the EU, which is impracticable 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 use of smart phones and tablets during flights. But, in order for this service to work, airlines must install specific hardware on board each concerned airplane.

 Role of key players

European Commission and Member States

Allow use of spectrum for 3G and 4G during flights

Airlines operating in the EU

Will decide whether to take advantage of this new option to use 3G and 4G in flights

European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) – separate from the Commission decision. See their press release

Will issue guidance on use of electronic devices during take-off and landing by end of November

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 3000m altitude. So if you want to surf social networks during your flight, or send emails with attachments, this decision makes that possible.

Background

Decisions are EU laws relating to specific cases. This Commission Decision, addressed to the Members States, asks them to allow operators the use of two new spectrum bands and technologies (the 2100MHz band for UMTS/3G and the 1800MHz band for LTE/4G subject to the respect of some technical conditions specified in the annex to the Decision). Detailed safety guidance is the domain of the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) who will issue guidance in November 2013.

EU rules

Until 2008, mobile communications on-board aircraft (MCA) were possible using telephone systems owned by the airline. Since 2008, 2G (GSM) communication became possible.

For safety reasons these services are available only at altitudes above 3000 metres.

Over 200 aircraft with destinations in the EU are suitably equipped to comply with the EU rules issued in 2008.  The new rules are based on studies which the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) has made for the European Commission.

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.

  • ·the 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 ensure they connect only to an Aircraft Base Station (see below)

  • ·Aircraft Base Station: the antenna to which mobile terminals connect; it takes the form of a cable running along the ceiling of the cabin.

Useful links

MCA in the Digital Agenda

More on MCA 2008 Decision

Hash Tags: #spectrum

Neelie Kroes

Annex: Q&A for use of 3G and 4G in aircraft

Q. Is the Commission decision linked to the EASA's announcement on electronic devices?

A. The Commission's decision is separate from the EASA's announcement. Both relate to using electronic devices when on an aircraft but here is the difference:

- When boarding a plane, you will not need to switch off your smartphone but only put it in "airplane mode", so you will be able to look at your photos or read your e-book during take-off and landing. This is the EASA part.

- If the airline decides to equip their planes with MCA technology (permitting the use of 3G and 4G), once above 3000 metres in altitude, passengers will be able to deactivate the airplane mode and start using their phones as if they were on the ground. This is the EC part.

Q. Is the EASA decision the same as the FAA decision from 31 October?

A. The EASA decision to allow electronic devices to be used during take-off and landing indeed aligns it with the United States' FAA decision. For more information, you should contact either the EASA or the FAA on this, as it is separate from the Commission's decision on spectrum use on aircraft.

Q. Will passengers be able to make voice calls during flights now?

A. In fact, the use of personal portable devices for telephone and internet applications 2G applications is already allowed on board aircraft whose airlines have chosen to install the MCA hardware need - for the moment that is very few. The MCA Decision only adds new technologies. Also, we should be clear that it is up to the airlines to choose whether to allow voice calls to be made during flights, not the Commission.

Q. What about receiving calls, SMS and data?

A. Passengers can also receive calls, SMS, mail etc., by simply keeping their phone on while on-board an MCA equipped aircraft.

Q. How many European aircraft are already equipped for mobile communications on-board?

A. Today around 95% of the 200-plus equipped aircraft using European airspace are owned by non-EU airlines. Very few European airlines are equipped to take advantage of these possibilities at the moment. The new EU decision will be an opportunity and a wake-up call.

Q. How expensive it will it be for airlines to make use of the new 3G and 4G options? Will they need a permit?

A. The EU does not require any permits and therefore does not impose any costs.

MCA is a service provided by specialist service providers like OnAir or AeroMobile. The airline simply "allows" those service providers to "come on-board" their airplanes.

When passengers are on board an MCA-equipped aircraft, their phone's display will not display say, "Vodafone" but one of those names, without country specification. The MCA provider is considered as a "virtual country" which bills the passenger (through roaming agreements with the passenger's mobile network operator which will include  the MCA service in the usual monthly bill) as happens whenever a person is roaming.

The price applying to MCA services (irrespective of where the aircraft is physically at any given moment) is usually the one corresponding to "rest of the world" applied by your usual service provider. For more information about whether airlines incur a cost or can make a profit from the use of MCA services, please contact an MCA service provider for more details, as this is not part of the Commission's remit.

When using these services passengers will not be using 3G/4G directly between their device and the ground. The 3G/4G technology only concerns the way the smartphones, etc. connect to the aircraft INTERNAL antenna (inside the cabin). Thereafter, the signal is processed and will leave the aircraft through a satellite.

Contacts

Email: comm-kroes@ec.europa.eu Tel: +32.229.57361 Twitter: @RyanHeathEU


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