ACMA allows phone use during flights

Being out of telephone contact while flying may be a thing of the past following a decision by the communications watchdog to green light the use of mobiles during flights in Australia.
Written by AAP , Contributor; Angela Harper, Contributor and  Josh Taylor, Contributor

Being out of telephone contact while flying may be a thing of the past following a decision by the communications watchdog to green light the use of mobiles during flights in Australia.

The new ruling by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is set to revolutionise airline travel and bring Australia into line with other countries that have enjoyed the technology for some time.

After close consultation with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which has raised no technical objections to the new arrangements, airline passengers may soon be able to text, check email and use data during flights.

Although some telcos have concerns the market will be dominated by an international carrier that regulates communication through a device called picocell, ACMA has said it will consider alternative technologies, as long as they don't compromise safety and meet approved standards.

"The Australian Communications and Media Authority has finalised radio communications licensing arrangements to facilitate mobile communication services on aircraft," ACMA chairman Chris Chapman said in a statement.

"The licensing arrangements will allow airlines to deploy mobile communication services on their aircraft through special on-board systems, should they choose to do so.

"In developing these arrangements, the ACMA was conscious of the need for harmonisation with aviation safety regulations and the protection of terrestrial communications networks from interference."

Terrestrial networks refer to the transmission vehicle telecommunications use to transmit mobile phone communication, and calls connecting directly to terrestrial networks are not authorised under the licensing arrangements.

The picocell control unit blocks on-board mobile handsets from receiving signals from terrestrial base stations and acts as a base station, which transmits to terrestrial networks via satellite.

So far, only one carrier, AeroMobile, a subsidiary of Norwegian telco Telenor, is able to provide the service, which will cost users international roaming charges — despite the communications taking place in domestic skies.

Texts alone can be five to 10 times the price of standard texts.

In its submission to ACMA, Telstra said the proposed licensing scheme would artificially restrict mobile traffic to one provider aboard each aircraft and deny Australian consumers access to the country's highly competitive mobile market.

"We would welcome the ACMA and the airlines allowing people to use their mobile devices in flight, but consumers should not be restricted to any one technology or provider," Telstra said in a statement.

"Australia has a thriving and highly competitive mobile market and there is no reason why it shouldn't extend to the skies as well."

Vodafone Hutchison Australia, in its submissions, also cited the importance of non-exclusive agreements for carriers.

Qantas also raised concerns, in its submissions, that the proposed licensing arrangement in spectrum-licensed areas would lead to telcos such as Telstra being able to charge the airlines "very high sub-licence fees, in the knowledge that licensees would have very little negotiating leverage".

ACMA does advise that should alternative, safe methods of mobile communication on aircraft be proposed for commercial operation in the future — including those that access Australia's terrestrial networks — the ACMA would move to consider those methods.

V Australia had announced plans to offer on-board SMS and data services subject to ACMA making appropriate regulatory arrangements (which the licensing arrangements now facilitate), ACMA said.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said it would not comment on another government agency; however, ACMA revealed it consulted with the ACCC on the use of the control unit device, which prevents mobile phones connecting with their carrier.

The ACCC advised that where a genuine safety issue exists, the use of the on-board system to force the handsets to connect only to the on-board base station wouldn't constitute anti-competitive behaviour.

(Front page image credit: Qantas 747-300 image by planegeezer, CC2.0)

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