Europe edges closer to mobile phones on planes

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

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.

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 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."