The European Commission is opening the door for European airlines to begin offering inflight 5G connectivity, the organization has announced, by allocating certain spectrum for inflight 5G as well as “previous mobile technology generations.” Passengers will connect to an on-board pico-cell base station, which then connects to ground-based networks via satellite. Calls, texts, and data are all expected to be supported.
“5G will enable innovative services for people and growth opportunities for European companies,” said EU commissioner Thierry Breton. “The sky is no longer a limit when it comes to possibilities offered by super-fast, high-capacity connectivity.” The Commission’s announcement does not offer details on exactly when 5G services may become available to flyers.
“The sky is no longer a limit”
Although passengers have historically been told to put their devices in “Airplane Mode” while onboard flights, the rules have been relaxed in recent years. In 2014 the European Union Aviation Safety Agency updated its guidance to say airlines don’t need to require their passengers to use the mode for safety. Airplane Mode typically limits cellular connectivity, but often still allows other wireless technology like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Inflight 5G is not expected to create any safety issues, because it uses different frequencies to those used for cockpit communications, the International Air Transport Association tells The Telegraph. Phones will use 5GHz spectrum and up, while planes themselves use the 4.2-4.4GHz range for their connectivity.
In the US the relationship between 5G and the air travel industry has been more fraught, with airlines expressing concern earlier this year that the rollout of new 5G spectrum near airports risked disrupting sensitive inflight equipment. The spectrum rollout is now expected to happen by the middle of next year, giving airlines time to retrofit their planes with equipment that isn’t sensitive to the frequencies used. Bloomberg notes that the FCC ditched plans in 2020 to allow inflight cellular connectivity due to opposition on “safety and national security grounds.”