The Horror at 37,000 Feet: EU Allows In-Flight Cell Phone Use

The European Commission introduced new rules Monday for mobile communications on aircrafts during flights. The new regulations give the airlines a green light to let their passengers talk on their mobile phones midair — with a few caveats, of course.

The Commission, however, did not create protections for quiet passengers who might find themselves stuck next to a working business person or a chatting teenager.

Regulations Needed First

“Pan-European telecom services, such as in-flight mobile telephony, need a regulatory ‘one-stop shop’ to operate throughout Europe, and this is why the Commission has acted today. One regulatory decision for all European airspace was required for this new service to come into being,” noted Viviane Reding, the EU’s telecom commissioner.

“Now we expect operators to be transparent and innovative in their price offerings. In-flight mobile phone services can be a very interesting new service, especially for those business travelers who need to be ready to communicate wherever they are, wherever they go,” she added, noting that if consumers receive “shock” phone bills, the service will not take off.

The intention is to let airlines offer mobile services no matter which European Union country they happen to be flying over.

Technical Requirements

The Commission’s rules don’t allow mobile phone users to connect to the ground-based towers while in mid-flight. Instead, passenger phones will be linked to an on-board cellular network connected to the ground via satellite, the Commission reported. The system will block phones from connecting to ground-based towers.

These requirements, the Commission said, will ensure that transmission powers are kept low enough for mobile phones to be used without affecting the safety of aircraft equipment or the normal operation of terrestrial mobile networks.

In proposing rules for one of the first truly pan-European telecoms services, the Commission said it is responding to demand from air passengers, many of whom want to use their mobile phones during flights, as well as from the airline industry, which wants to respond to passenger interests.

The first flights to offer the services will likely take off sometime in 2008. Ofcom, a UK telecom regulator, announced last month that it will allow airlines to offer mobile communications on board aircraft in line with the common European approach, the Commission noted.

Respectful Yakking?

The big question, of course, is how non-talking passengers will respond to disrespectful yakking. Planes are already loud, so it’s not hard to imagine loud-voiced talkers. Sleeping or even falling back to sleep after a loud ring tone goes off inches away may prove more difficult.

“In the U.S. marketplace, this is an issue that has been debated for a while,” Jeff Kagan, a telecommunications industry analyst, told the E-Commerce Times.

“The technology is now here, so we have some important questions to deal with,” he added.

The issue, Kagan noted, is somewhat similar to public smoking bans.

“The smoker wants to smoke without concern to the non-smoker, who finds the smell uncomfortable. The non-smoker wants normal, clean air without concern for the smoker, who may need to smoke. Both sides are opposite each other and cannot look at the question from both sides,” he explained.

“It’s the same with cell phones on airplanes. … What’s the answer? This is a tough call. Flying at 35,000 feet trapped in an airplane can be a problem,” he said, noting that there has to be a reasonable solution to this problem, “which I think is a major issue.”

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