EC Approves In-Flight 3G And 4G As EASA Relaxes Take-off Rules

The European Commission (EC) and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have paved the way for European-based airlines to let passengers use certain electronic devices during take-off and landing and even use 4G and 3G connections through a small on-board cell once the aircraft is 3,000 metres above the ground.

The EASA says personal electronic items such as tablets, smartphones and e-readers are safe to use throughout a flight so long as ‘flight mode’ is enabled, bringing European regulations in line with the US, whose Federal Aviation Authority made a similar ruling earlier this month. Bulkier items, such as laptops, cannot be used however.

The agency believer the decision reflects the desire among Europeans to use their mobile phones in-flight, but says it will be up to airlines to carry out their own assessment.

In-flight mobile

“This is a major step in the process of expanding the freedom to use personal electronic devices on-board aircraft without compromise in safety” says Patrick Ky, EASA Executive Director.

However the EC says passengers on European aircraft should be able to use 3G and 4G connections once the aircraft has reached an altitude in excess of 3,000 metres, so as not to disrupt ground-based services.

Signals are received via an antenna on board the aircraft and sent to the ground network via a satellite connection. This signal is weak so it does not interfere with other communications.

“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,” explains Ryan Heath, an EC spokesperson.

Hello, I’m on a plane

The Commission approved the use of 2G services in 2008, and there are currently 200 European aircraft equipped with the functionality, although GSM networks are impractical for sending large amounts of data. It will be up to airlines to choose whether or not to offer 3G and 4G to customers, and whether they will offer voice, SMS or data services.

“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,” adds Heath. “Or limit the new possibilities to longer flights or to certain periods of the flight – for example to avoid sleep disruption.”

Last year, Virgin Atlantic announced plans to let passengers make in-flight phone calls, send texts and access the mobile Internet. Industry services indicate that SMS and email are of greater interest to passengers than voice, although research by flight comparison website Skyscanner suggests that 86 percent of flyers are against the use of in-flight mobile phone use altogether.

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Steve McCaskill

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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