Wednesday, February 1, 2023

New EU legislation allows airlines to provide in-flight 5G connectivity

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Something to look forward to: Airline passengers have become accustomed to either completely cutting themselves off from the outside world or paying additional charges for in-flight Wi-Fi access. But thanks to new legislation passed by the European Commission, passengers aboard European Union-based flights may soon be able to use all of their device’s standard mobile features while in flight.

On Thursday, the European Commission announced that EU-based airlines will now be allowed to provide in-flight wireless 4G and 5G access for all passengers. Once implemented, passengers can use their mobile devices in the same ways as any ground-based mobile network while in flight. Goodbye airplane mode; we can’t say it’s been fun.

An onboard “small cell” network established using picocells will provide the in-flight service. Small cells function as miniature, low-power cell towers that augment typical cell towers by filling in coverage gaps and offloading cellular traffic. The result is a broader, more reliable cellular network that delivers high data rates and easier deployments using simple, cost-effective cellular solutions.

Picocells are a specific type of small, low-cost small-cell technology that can support between 32 and 64 individual users while providing up to 250m in-network coverage. Their size and ease of deployment indoors or outdoors make them ideal for augmenting and improving the range within facilities and structures such as schools, shopping centers, and other small businesses. Once deployed to participating aircraft, the cells will route calls, texts, and other mobile data between the plane and ground-based mobile networks.

The European Commission’s Thierry Breton, a commissioner for Internal Market, sees the new legislation as a potential catalyst to drive new EU-based services and business growth.

“The sky is no longer a limit when it comes to possibilities offered by super-fast, high-capacity connectivity,” Breton said.

The push to expand 4G and 5G access will likely extend beyond air travel. The Commission also amended a decision on 5GHz, making the bands available for use in cars, buses, and other forms of transportation. The amendment to the implementing decision says that Member States shall make the 5GHz frequency bands available for use aboard road vehicles no later than June 2023.

Image credit: Airplane mode by Sten Ritterfeld, small cell diagram from rfpage.com

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