Précis    

Since 2008, the use of mobile phone handsets with mobile communication services on aircraft (“MCA”) has been exempt from the need to obtain a licence in the UK (in respect of flights on UK-registered aircraft or over UK territory), providing that the handsets comply with the GSM standards and operate in the 1800 MHz band. Practically speaking, this meant that only 2G services could be used with MCA.

Further to a decision made by the European Commission to permit access to 3G (UMTS 2100) and 4G technologies (LTE 1800) on-board aircraft, which all member states are required to implement by 12 May 2014, Ofcom has now consulted on regulations which would extend the current exemption to the use of 3G and 4G technologies.

What?

This exemption relates only to the use of handsets connected to a MCA. MCA systems consist of an onboard pico-cell base station and an onboard Network Control Unit (“NCU”). The NCU is used to prevent handsets within the aircraft from connecting to or interfering with ground-based base stations and to ensure that they only connect to the base station on the aircraft.  

Where MCAs are installed, airline passengers can “roam” on to the signal provided by the onboard base station providing that their mobile network operator has a roaming agreement in place with the operator of the MCA.

As with the previous exemption, the exemption only exempts the handsets and not the use of the MCA by the airlines. This is needed because the original exemption of mobile handsets only extended to handsets when used to connect to ground-based base stations (and not MCA).

As for the licensing of the MCA itself, this will be dealt with by a variation to the relevant Aircraft Radio Licences. These are the licences issued by the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK on behalf of Ofcom.

So what?

In many ways, the regulatory framework for the use of mobile phones on planes is considerably more advanced than customer demand would appear to be at this stage. 

In addition, there is much debate amongst airlines and their passengers as to whether the interests of better connectivity in-flight outweigh the additional noise which may be generated by passengers using their phones.

Given that it is open to airlines to prohibit access to certain services on-board (for example, some airlines with MCAs currently prohibit voice calls but allow data and texts) and that the increased speeds offered by 3G and 4G services will make silent use far more practical, it may be that many more European airlines now take the plunge and install MCA on their aircraft as a result of this change. Other airlines may persist with commercial in-flight WiFi offerings that have recently been rolled out by some major airlines.