Europe edges closer to mobile phones on planes

Europe edges closer to mobile phones on planes

Summary: The telecoms regulator has issued proposals that will let passengers use their handsets on European flights

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TOPICS: Networking
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The likelihood of mobile-phone usage being allowed on flights within Europe increased on Thursday after Ofcom issued a consultation on the matter.

The issue has been brewing for many years but has been hampered until now by concerns over safety and the commercial viability of business models. The regulator's new proposals are the result of negotiations within the European Union, and will therefore cover all European airspace — although what will happen with flights leaving that airspace remains to be seen.

Ofcom is proposing a situation where a mobile base station would be allowed to be installed on a plane. Calls would be routed by satellite, and calls would be treated as if the user was roaming. The revenue would come from a deal between the airline and an onboard operator. There are two operators currently able to offer such a service: OnAir and Aeromobile.

According to an Ofcom spokesperson, the drive towards the new proposals has come from OnAir (a joint venture with Airbus and the airline industry body SITA) and Aeromobile (a joint venture between the Norwegian telco Telenor and the transport communications company ARINC), rather than the airlines themselves. However, many airlines including Ryanair, BMI and Air France have previously expressed interest.

As is currently the case, all mobile telephony equipment would need to be switched off during landing and takeoff. It would then be allowed on at a minimum height of 3,000m. The first phase of the service's introduction would enable GSM voice and GPRS data, but it may in future extend to 3G and beyond.

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Ofcom's spokesperson conceded that, despite pan-European agreement and similar moves being undertaken in some other countries including Australia, the service may hit problems when flying over countries without similar regulations.

"Potentially, once the system is up and running, when you fly into other airspace outside the EU you would have to comply with the individual countries' jurisdiction and their regulations," Ofcom's spokesperson said. "If they haven't got the system in place it might be turned off."

The US Federal Aviation Authority ruled earlier this month that it would not allow mobile calls on planes for the foreseeable future. And the Daily Telegraph has launched a campaign against in-flight mobile use.

A spokesperson for British Airways told ZDNet.co.uk on Thursday that the airline "would have to think very carefully about whether or not we want to allow customers to use mobile phones onboard as it could devalue the whole customer experience".

"We will be led by customer feedback," the spokesperson added. "We are in the early stage of research into this matter — both in terms of the technological and regulatory practicality, and also with our customers. We have carried out some preliminary surveying of passengers from our Executive Club. One option, which has been regarded favourably, is texting rather than spoken conversations."

Topic: Networking

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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3 comments
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  • Ban mobiles - bring back smoking!

    Mobile phone usage has been widespread for about ten years now, and people have got used to the fact that they cannot make calls while flying. The global economy has not ground to halt because some merchant banker is unable to phone his secretary to get her to order more velvet toilet paper for his Kensington crash-pad before he touches down in Heathrow. So why do we need this to change?

    Everyone has got used to the fact they can't make or receive calls while flying - so why do we need this technology - is it really going to improve the quality of our lives, makes us any more productive or have any real benefits at all? It's just technology for technology sake - with operators and airlines keen to suck more money out of anyone deluded enough about their place in the universe to think they need to be in constant communication 24X7.

    Rather than allowing mobile calls on planes - why don't we just bring back smoking instead - that way all the small brained, ADD sufferers who can't go a few hours without making a phone call - can find a more direct way of throwing their money away - they can light little bonfires of cash at the back of the plane - that should keep them amused.
    Andrew Donoghue
  • Mobile madness

    Hasn't Japan just banned any electronic devices on their planes that can uses any kind of wireless functionality such as a Nintendo DS
    <a href="http://uk.gamespot.com/news/show_blog_entry.php?topic_id=25957914&sid=6180299" rel="external">Source: Emma Boyes @ Gamespot News</a>

    Just goes to show when there is money to be made Airlines will suddenly not have a problem with devices that "interfere with pilot controls".

    It's another case of <a href="http://www.zdnet.co.uk/talkback/0,1000001161,39290010-39001101c-20088122o,00.htm">fear of magic</a> where mobiles were banned at petrol stations for fear they would cause an explosion (disproved by <a href="http://www.skyone.co.uk/brainiac/pgArticle.aspx?articleid=52&pid=1" rel="external">Brainiac </a>. With the planes dropping out of the sky because of mobile phones I seriously doubt through testing has been done - I know that plenty of people never both to switch of their phones on flights - and guess what we didn't spiral out of control.

    If Europe pull this off then Japan will look rather silly for being so scared of handhelds.
    david@...
  • Ooops

    Lufthansa did a study some years back, where it concluded that on average there is more than one phone left on on every flight. And that was then.

    I've got two phones now, my personal mobile and the work smartphone, and last time I went to the US I forgot to turn the latter off (I'd shoved it in my hand luggage to get through security, and forgotten it was there). It bleeped as I got off the plane at San Francisco; I dug it out and read the text message that said: "Welcome to T-Mobile Iceland". So not only had it been squonking away for twelve hours, it had managed to log onto a base station from 38000 feet (albeit for just long enough for the system to recognise it, and not long enough to receive the text).

    If this WAS a problem, then there wouldn't just be a ban - there'd be mobile phone detectors on board, like smoke detectors. There aren't. It's not a problem.
    rupert.goodwins@...