Soon, travellers on European Union (EU) airlines will be able to make full use of their phones while flying.
The European Commission decided that airlines could offer both 5G technology and slower mobile broadband on board aircraft.
Although it’s not obvious how it will be implemented, this could mean that passengers won’t need to put their phones on airplane mode anymore.
The member nations must make the 5G frequency bands accessible to aircraft by 30 June 2023.
As a result, users will be able to make calls and use data-intensive apps that stream music and video while in flight.
Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, said the plan would “enable innovative services for people” and help European companies grow.
“The sky is no longer a limit when it comes to possibilities offered by super-fast, high-capacity connectivity,” he said.
The end of airplane mode?
The EU Commission has reserved certain frequency bands for aircraft since 2008, allowing some services to offer mid-air internet access.
But this service has been historically slow, as it relied on equipment to connect people via a satellite between the airplane and the ground.
The new system will be able to take advantage of the much faster download speeds provided by 5G, which according to mobile network EE can be over 100Mbps – enabling a film to be downloaded in just a few minutes.
Dai Whittingham, chief executive of the UK Flight Safety Committee, told the BBC that airplane mode was historically important due to a lack of knowledge about how mobile devices affect aircraft.
“There was a concern they could interfere with automatic flight control systems,” he said.
“What has been found with experience is the risk of interference is very small. The recommendation has always been that once you are in flight, devices should be in in airplane mode.”
There has been a concern in the US that 5G frequencies could interfere with flights, and even potentially lead to erroneous altitude measurements.
But Mr Whittingham said this is not an issue in the UK and the EU.
“There is much less prospect of interference,” he said, “We have a different set of frequencies for 5G, and there are lower power settings than those that have been allowed in the US.
“The travelling public wants 5G. The regulators will open up that possibility, but there will be steps that will be taken to ensure that whatever they do is safe.”
Glenn Bradley, Head of Flight Operations at the UK Civil Aviation Authority – the regulator responsible for the safety of aircraft within the UK – said the use of mobile phones to make calls is prohibited on UK airlines, unless the aircraft has been “equipped with an approved mobile phone control system”.
“We understand that plans to enable 5G onboard flights will operate in the higher frequency bands and therefore won’t interfere with aircraft systems,” he said.
“We stand ready to work with the industry to assist the delivery of this innovation.”