European Commission Gives Its OK For In-Plane 3G, 4G Services For Data Use; Airlines Have The Final Say, Though

In-flight wireless data services are taking off in Europe. The European Commission has now approved two key pieces of legislation that could finally see passengers be able to use their phones and tablets — and laptops with cellular connectivity — while flying. The first allows devices to be operated beyond “flight mode” (except during take-off and landing); and the second allows people to use 3G (UMTS) and 4G (LTE) services at altitudes of above 3,000 meters. But the Commission still notes that final permission to use devices rests with airlines, before consumers take the leap to check Facebook while mid-flight.

“A customer will not have the right to demand to use their mobile,” a spokesperson for the Commission cautions (emphasis theirs). “This EU decision gives airlines to 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 3000m). Airlines remain in charge about whether they allow this during their flights or not.”

Up to now, people were only allowed to use 2G at such heights, but that effectively made any kind of data service impossible.

The news comes a day after the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) announced that kindles, smartphones and tablets can be used in “flight mode” during a plane’s take-off, journey and landing, to align better with regulations in the U.S. from the FAA.

While this is definitely a step forward, it’s still going to be up to airlines to give the final go-ahead, and it’s likely that they will be doing this as part of a premium service for which they will charge passengers, much as in-flight WiFi is used at special charges in the U.S. today, or 2G phone services are available on some flights in Europe today.

The Commission notes that this will probably mean the introduction of new technology on board aircrafts to make such calls possible. “This Commission Decision confers rights, immediately, on airlines which enable them to put in place improved mobile communication on-board aircraft (MCA) systems, making use of the pre-existing spectrum bands for 3G and 4G. These are the 2100MHz band for 3G, and the 1800MHz band for 4G,” it notes.

Those will not come cheap: “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.” It also notes that some European stakeholders are working on introducing a new “Direct air to ground” (DA2G) broadband technology, which would bypass satellites. With existing MCA services, the signal is received by an antenna on board the aircraft and sent to the ground network via a satellite connection, it notes.

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