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Ofcom Make it Easier for Aircraft to Support In-Flight 2G, 3G and 4G Mobile

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017 (12:07 pm) - Score 1,207

The UK telecoms regulator has proposed to introduce a small but important change that would make it easier and cheaper for aircraft to support the use of on-board mobile devices (e.g. handsets, tablets, laptops) in the 2G, 3G and 4G radio spectrum bands.

At present it’s already possible to offer in-flight Mobile connectivity, which normally requires an aircraft to install its own Base Transceiver Station (BTS) and Network Control Unit (NCU) to which mobile apparatus used by air passengers must connect. The mobile communications system for aircraft (MCA) operates, in essence, similar to that of a land base station.

The use of this kit is strictly regulated because there’s a strong possibility that it could cause harmful interference to similar ground based Mobile networks in the same bands. To ensure minimal risk to such networks, the use of MCA services is restricted to aircraft at an altitude of 3000 metres+, while the NCU helps to keep air and land-based systems separate.

One problem with this approach is that whenever new frequency bands are released and allocated to mobile services then the NCU has to be upgraded, which requires the aircraft to be taken out of service and fitted with the new equipment. This is obviously a significant cost and disruption to the airline, which can hinder uptake of on-board mobile connectivity.

However a recent study found that GSM (2G) and LTE (4G) technologies are unable to register with ground based networks, although apparatus using UMTS based 3G in certain bands could still register with ground networks (danger of interference). As such the EU and now Ofcom have proposed to make it possible for airline passengers to use mobile devices without the need for a wireless telegraphy licence, albeit with one obvious exception.

Ofcom Statement

The removal of the mandatory requirement to use NCU for GSM and LTE technologies is likely to mean that businesses running MCA systems benefit from a simpler and cheaper MCA system as any future bands allocated for mobile services will be for 4G and 5G generation technologies rather than the older 3G one (UMTS).

This would mean that once installed on an aircraft the NCU will not require to be updated/replaced.

The caveat is that the NCU requirement must remain for UMTS technology deployed in the 900MHz and 2100MHz frequency bands, but since 4G is fast becoming the primary standard for mobile comms then that’s no longer such a big deal (experiences may vary between countries).

The deadline for responses to today’s consultation is 12th May 2017. Mind you allowing people to use their Mobile’s in-flight remains a touchy subject, particularly when you’re on a long-haul trip and want to get some sleep, while another nearby passenger has decided to strike up a conversation over their phone.

UPDATE 26th May 2017

The above change has been approved.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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