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EC gives airlines green-light for 3G & 4G broadband services on board

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EC gives airlines green-light for 3G and 4G broadband services on boardThe European 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 – Will issue guidance on use of electronic devices during take-off and landing by end of November.

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).

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.

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.

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