European travelers will soon be able to chat on their 5G-enabled mobile devices on planes without the fear of hearing "Please put your phone in airplane mode" from a flight attendant.

A European Commission decision will allow airlines to provide 5G voice calls and high-speed Internet connectivity by 2023; the decision was quickly heralded as a business opportunity for European companies.

"The sky is no longer the limit when it comes to the possibilities offered by ultra-fast, high-capacity connectivity," Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market, said in a statement.

The decision raised questions about when US airlines could allow 5G connectivity on board their planes for voice calls and entertainment on commercial flights.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not prohibit the use of personal electronic devices (including cell phones) on airplanes. Instead, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) leaves the decision to individual airlines.

In fact, the FCC rules allow "any other portable electronic device that the aircraft operator has determined will not cause interference with the navigation or communications system of the aircraft in which it will be used."

This is where the problem lies.

Last year, new 5G networks caused interference with older cockpit instruments like altimeters. Altimeters are essential, especially for landing in low visibility conditions; They operate at frequencies around 4,4 GHz.

In the United States, 5G networks are being deployed using the C band, with frequencies between 3,7 GHz and 3,98 GHz, at the lower end of the 5G spectrum; this leaves very little space between the frequencies used by the cockpit instruments and has caused interference in the past. In Europe, 5G uses frequencies of 5 GHz or higher, providing a sufficient buffer between cellular communications and on-board instruments.

That said, with relatively simple filtering technology or instrument upgrades, 5G C-band transmissions would no longer be a problem, according to Dan Bieler, principal analyst at Forrester Research.

“It is up to the airlines to enable 5G for their planes. To this end, the European Commission has designated certain frequencies for 5G in-flight," Bieler said.

Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman and now a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, told the Washington Post last week that concerns about cockpit instrument interference were greatly exaggerated.

"The reality is that the vast majority of aircraft have altimeters that are shielded from signals," Wheeler said, and older models are either being replaced or shielded.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association representing 290 airlines worldwide, believes that "the introduction of 5G mobile devices into the aircraft cabin environment is not expected to have an impact in terms of interference with on-board systems'.

“Whether the use of such devices for voice calls should be allowed should be a decision for each individual airline,” a spokesperson said in an emailed response to Computerworld.

Airline passengers cannot make normal 5G calls or browse the web on board commercial aircraft, as the planes fly too high, too fast, and over too many remote areas for 5G connectivity to be available at acceptable quality.

Over the past two decades, dozens of major airlines have begun offering paid in-flight Wi-Fi via high-performance air-to-ground antennas located at the base of the aircraft fuselage. Essentially, the aircraft becomes a Wi-Fi access point, as the signal is transmitted throughout the aircraft through a series of access points (routers).

Passengers who pay for in-flight Wi-Fi can do everything they normally would when connected to the Internet, including sending emails and streaming movies. But that connectivity relied on slower data speeds. Another shortcoming: the system does not work in large bodies of water unless the signal is transmitted to a satellite communication system.

Gogo Inflight is one of the most prolific providers of inflight Internet connectivity. The Broomfield, Colorado-based company provides more than 2500 commercial airliners and 6600 business jets with its in-flight Wi-Fi services for entertainment and wireless connectivity.

Gogo's customers include American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Air Canada, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. In October, Gogo announced that it had completed the rollout of its 5G towers in the United States.

But airlines operating in the United States remain reluctant to enable planes for 5G communications.

"That's why airlines currently require you to put your phone in airplane mode, which still allows Wi-Fi connectivity, but not cellular," said Bill Menezes, a senior consultant at Gartner Research.

Without 5G interference issues, there are only two reasons why US airlines would oppose cell phone use on planes: The airlines want to continue to sell the exclusive right to Wi-Fi connectivity, Fi and entertainment and/or don't want passengers commenting all over the place. a flight.

"You have someone who wants to work and they have a cell phone-enabled tablet or they want to make team calls or something like that, and they can't," said Menezes, who was attending a conference in Las Vegas. “I have people here who have flown in from the East Coast and it's a four to five hour flight. That's a long time to sit around playing with your thumbs."

There are also benefits to giving the green light to the use of 5G communications for the airlines themselves. They can reduce the weight of aircraft, for example, by removing entertainment screens from the headrests. Some airlines, like Alaska Airlines, offer mounts on the back of the headrests where passengers can connect their tablets for use with Wi-Fi.

"At this stage, it is unclear how many airlines will implement 5G connectivity on their aircraft," Bieler said. “After all, an airplane is one of the last places where you can escape the chatter of many smartphone users.

"Airlines will have to decide what the customer experience means for their passengers: the relative freedom and tranquility of an area without connectivity or the freedom to stay connected at all times," Beiler said. "If you opt for the latter, airlines could consider providing ground rules on smartphone usage etiquette."

In December 2021, the FCC proposed in-flight access to mobile services for all travelers, but the decision to allow consumers to access their mobile devices during the flight will be left to the discretion of each airline.

In June, the FAA updated its guidance to say that "primary commercial" fleets should be equipped with enhanced 5G altimeters or filters by July 2023, after which wireless companies should continue to roll out 5G networks near most airports. "with minimal restrictions." .

The FCC, in an FAQ, noted: "If approved,...the new rules could give airlines the ability to install an air access system that would provide the connection between passengers' wireless devices and commercial wireless networks, as Wi-Fi service is provided on board aircraft today to provide Internet connections and manage connections securely,” the agency said.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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