ACMA proposes to allow mobile calls on domestic flights

Agency puts out discussion paper on amending regulation to allow in-flight mobile communication

The Australian Communications and Media Authority is proposing the establishment of radio communications licensing to allow airplane passengers to use their mobiles during flights.

After a "highly successful" nine-month trial of an AeroMobile on-board system for SMS and general packet radio services (GPRS) with a Qantas domestic plane in 2007 the ACMA has opened up a discussion paper and is seeking comments by January 29 next year.

The move comes after the agency amended the Mobile Phone Jammer Prohibition at the start of 2009, which was described as a first step to allowing in-flight mobile communications.

Although both Qantas and V Australia are yet to say if they will kick off in-flight voice calls, the ACMA says both have announced plans to offer SMS and data services if the regulatory changes go through.

The agency also pointed to interest in in-flight mobile communications garnered during the AeroMobile trial, moves made in Europe and as seen on Emirates Airlines, which "recently recorded its 100,000th user".

European budget airline, Ryanair has also enabled mobile communications on 20 of its planes and "plans to extend the service to the rest of its fleet over the next 18 months".

The ACMA has proposed in-flight mobile communications be allowed by:

    "Third party agreements with spectrum licensees for airspace above geographical areas where frequencies are spectrum licensed; and
  • (a) a PMTS C licence for Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approved on-board systems and (b) a Class licence for user devices in areas where frequencies are not spectrum licensed"

Using pico cell technology on-board systems allow airlines to facilitate in-flight mobile communications by offering a predictable radio environment while preventing devices from causing interference to aircraft systems and terrestrial network base stations.

Operating in a similar way to a terrestrial base station the pico cell uses "frequencies in the 1800 MHz band to communicate with user devices on the aircraft" and uses a satellite link to hook up to terrestrial telco networks.

In short, it lets airlines offer services such as: "Full duplex voice and text messaging support for GSM phones capable of operating within the 1800 MHz / 1900 MHz GSM frequency band; and GPRS and related services i.e. MMS, EMS, picture messaging and email (when using Swift 64 or a broadband IP SATCOM)."

The discussion paper can be found on the ACMA website.

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