Regulators consider allowing mobile phone use on planes

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom proposes allowing British airlines to offer mobile phone services to passengers using onboard base stations.

The UK's telecoms regulator Ofcom Thursday proposed allowing British airlines to offer mobile phone services to passengers via onboard base stations.

The move is being considered by telecoms and air safety agencies throughout the European Union after the Electronic Communications Committee, a European agency, recently gave the go-ahead in principle. Ofcom is the first telecom regulator to support the idea publicly, but Air France is already looking into fitting one of its latest Airbus aircraft with the system with On Air, an offshoot of Airbus SAS.

While airlines have offered in-flight outbound telephone services through airline networks, the UK proposal will let passengers use their own handsets to make calls, Ofcom said in a statement. The service still requires approval by the Civil Aviation Authority, the UK's air transportation regulator.

The base station technology under consideration is a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) 1800MHz pico-cell system that prevents direct connection of the mobile terminals onboard with mobile networks on the ground. The main problem when using mobile phones on aircraft is not interference with the plane's systems, but that it confuses mobile phone base stations on the ground below the plane.

Australia has already issued a license to operate in-flight mobile services using the same technology and the Australian carrier Quantas is testing it on one of its Boeing aircraft, according to an official at the international airline association, IATA, which is monitoring development of the technology on behalf of the airlines. Within Europe, airlines considering offering mobile phone use as a service to passengers include Ryanair and TAP Air Portugal, as well as Air France. Beyond Europe, Emirates, AirAsia and Kingfisher airlines want to offer the service along with Quantas.

The US Federal Aviation Authority said earlier this month that it has no plans to allow mobile phones to be used on planes any time soon.

The earliest that services could be available from UK-registered airlines is 2008, subject to approval by the aviation authorities, Ofcom said.

Telecoms regulators are looking into what frequencies should be used for such a service. Initially, only 2G (second-generation) phones will be able to use the service to transmit voice, data and text messages, Ofcom said. The service could be extended to 3G and other standards in the future, Ofcom said.

The system would be switched off while the plane is on the ground, taking off and landing and would be usable only when the plane is flying above 3,000 meters, to prevent phones trying to connect with base stations on the ground, Ofcom said.

Ofcom's proposal was made public Thursday as part of a public consultation into the matter. Stiff opposition to the idea of passengers talking and texting during flights has already been voiced by some newspapers, including the UK's Daily Telegraph.

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