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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.