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EU sets cellphone users loose in aircraft

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The European Commission did its bit for the battle against climate change today by backing mobile phone calls on aircraft, thereby stripping air travel of any residual glamour or appeal.

But the Commission also warned operators that it would be watching closely to ensure they don’t try and scalp their air-bound customers to offset price caps on other parts of their business.

Viviane Reding, the EU's Telecoms Commissioner, said: “In-flight mobile phone services can be a very interesting new service especially for those business travellers who need to be ready to communicate wherever they are, wherever they go. However, if consumers receive shock phone bills, the service will not take off.”

The Commission’s statement emphasised that the current regulations on roaming only cover terrestrial networks, but pointedly said those regulations are due to be reviewed at the end of the year, adding that it will “closely monitor the levels and transparency of prices charged to consumers”.

Reding paid scant lip service to the fact that the Commission will have made air travel even more stressful and intrusive, by forcing passengers to listen to businessmen and holidaymakers braying into their phones above the engine noise.

“I also call on airlines and operators to create the right conditions on board aircraft to ensure that those who want to use in-flight communication services do not disturb other passengers," she said.

Given that budget-conscious airlines are loath to even allocate you a seat before you get on the plane, we look forward to seeing how operators work out how they can best monetise peace and quiet.

The UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom, gave its approval to inflight calling last month. Ofcom has been skirmishing with Reding’s department in recent months, as the EU flexes its muscles on pan-European telecoms regulation.

Reding couldn’t resist niggling national regulators in her statement today, saying “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.”

At a technical level, today’s policy envisages in-flight networks using picocells for GSM phones operating on 1900MHz. As well as a picocell, planes will carry a network control unit to ensure phones can only use the picocell, cutting highpower transmissions by phones and reducing any possible interference with the plane’s own systems. The services will only be offered at altitudes over 3000m. Calls will then be routed by satellite.

Pricing of inflight services will be set by the customer’s home service provider, “taking into account all charges, including agreements with the MCA provider, the air carriers, the satellite service providers, and other mobile network operators”. ®

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