Will 3G and 4G on board aircraft boost operator’s revenue?

The European Commission has given airlines a go ahead for 3G and 4G broadband services on board aircraft. The commission has adopted new rules that allow the latest wireless communications technologies to be used by passengers on board aircraft flying over the European Union.

The commission decision, addressed to the members states, asks them to allow operators the use of two new spectrum bands and technologies 2100 MHz band for UMTS/3G and the 1800 MHz band for LTE/4G subject to the respect of some technical conditions.

Till now, 3G (GSM) was permissible on-board aircraft flying in the EU, which is impracticable sending large amounts of data. So keeping in view, today’s requirement of sending large attachments, downloading eBooks and watching video), the commission has announced use of spectrum for 3G (UMTS) and 4G (LTE) communications above an altitude of 3,000 metres.

Until 2008, mobile communications on-board aircraft (MCA) were possible using telephone systems owned by the airline. Since 2008, 2G (GSM) communications became possible. For safety reasons these services are available only at altitudes above 3,000 metres. Over 200 aircraft with destinations in the European Union (EU) are suitably equipped to comply with the EU rules issued in 2008. The new rules are based on studies which the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) has made for the European Commission.

This EU decision creates the possibility for airlines – rather than a right for passengers – to allow use of smartphones and tablets during flights. But, in order for this service to work, airlines must install specific hardware on board each concerned airplane.

With this announcement, the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) is planning to issue a guidance on use of electronic devices during take-off and landing by end of November, 2013 which will extend to all phases of flight the possibility to use personal electronic devices (PED) such as tablets, smartphones, e-readers and MP3 players as long as the devices are in ‘Flight Mode’ or ‘Airplane Mode’.

Current EASA guidance allows the use of PED on aircraft, except during taxiing, take-off and landing. Bulky PED such as laptop computers will need to be stowed during taxiing, take-off and landing.

“This is a major step in the process of expanding the freedom to use personal electronic devices on-board aircraft without compromise in safety” said Patrick Ky, EASA executive director.

In the long term, the agency is looking at new ways to certify the use of mobile phones on-board aircraft to make phone calls. EASA recognises the wide proliferation of personal electronic devices and the wish of the travelling public to use them everywhere. The aim of the Agency is to ensure safe and harmonised use of PED on-board aircraft operated by European airlines.

In response to increasing passenger demand, airlines will be able to develop new in-flight internet services and airlines will remain in charge of what services they choose to equip their planes with those services. If airlines take advantage of the new possibilities, passengers will have access to better internet services, at times when their aircraft is flying above 3,000m altitude.

All this will help in making airlines travel more interesting in future as travelers can surf social networks during your flight, or send emails with attachments, this decision makes that possible. And it will also open up new revenue streams with respect to Mobile Communications On-board Aircraft (MCA) technology.

Presently, MCA is still in its infancy and as per industry estimate the data traffic is increasing by over 300 percent between 2011 and 2012. MCA is identical to normal mobile roaming in that passengers are billed through their service provider. Wi-Fi is also used for MCA but is not subject to specific rules because its low power does not pose interference risk with ground-based radio services.

MCA does not cover the communication between the aircraft and the ground which is currently provided by satellite-based systems. New satellites should allow ten times greater capacity than what is available today. Some European stakeholders are working on introducing a new “Direct air to ground” (DA2G) broadband technology, which would bypass satellites.

The signal is received by an antenna on board the aircraft and sent to the ground network via a satellite connection. The signal is limited in power to ensure it does not interference with other communications.

MCA is a service provided by specialist service providers like OnAir or AeroMobile. The airline simply “allows” those service providers to “come on-board” their airplanes. When passengers are on board an MCA-equipped aircraft, their phone’s display will not display say, operator’s name but one of those names, without country specification. The MCA provider is considered as a “virtual country” which bills the passenger as happens whenever a person is roaming.

When using these services passengers will not be using 3G/4G directly between their device and the ground. The 3G/4G technology only concerns the way the smartphones, etc. connect to the aircraft internal antenna (inside the cabin). Thereafter, the signal is processed and will leave the aircraft through a satellite.

All this concludes that one cannot ignore broadband services on board aircraft as this will become a reality in Europe and finally will be deployed in all the continents.

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