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Ofcom hits green on in-flight calling

EU price caps won't apply 3km up

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Ofcom will allow airlines to install GSM base stations on their planes, operating at 1800MHz, as long as they are only used more than 3km from the ground.

The regulator has no say over the safety of using a mobile on a plane, but is responsible for deciding what frequencies in-flight calling can use and how much to charge airlines for using them. For the moment, services will be restricted to 1800MHz and every aircraft will need its own licence - though licenses will be free of charge.

The statement (pdf) follows a consultation document published last year, and addresses the concerns of various companies in the industry, concerned individuals, and one (apparently fictional*) consumer organisation.

Seventeen of the 35 respondents were concerned about the potential irritation to other passengers, but Ofcom compared this to serving alcohol on aircraft and said it's up to the airline to deal with.

Three respondents thought switched-on mobiles might be used to trigger bombs, though it's debatable if the existing ban would prevent the dedicated suicide bomber from switching on a handset in-flight.

The most legitimate concerns regarded potential interference and the cost of the tests needed to ensure it's not causing a problem.

Ofcom said its 3km altitude limit should deal with this, and expects to get access to flight plans (from the National Air Traffic Service) to identify any interference problems.

Also of concern was that in-flight calling would be subject to the cap on roaming rates applied across Europe. Calls made from a plane are routed by satellite, making them more expensive for the operator who wants to pass that cost on to the customer.

Ofcom states that the EU cap clearly applies to "terrestrial" systems, so expects in-flight use to be exempt, though it does suggest airlines should make call charges clear. ®

* The "Open Minds Foundation" which has no address, phone number, or website and is represented by a "Mr AM Constant I".

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