Will the US allow phone calls on airplanes? Experts say not likely.


You can soon say goodbye to airplane mode – at least in Europe.

European Commission ruled late last month to allow airlines to provide 5G connectivity to passengers on board, including for phone calls and high-speed data. EU member states have until the end of June 2023 to allocate 5G frequency bands for aircraft.

“5G will enable innovative services for people and growth opportunities for European businesses,” said Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Single Market, in the announcement. “The sky is no longer the limit when it comes to the possibilities offered by super-fast, high-capacity connections.”

The EU move departs sharply from the US, where fears of 5G antennas on the ground interfering with aircraft equipment led to flight cancellations and diversions early this year. Cell carriers are still limiting 5G near airports until the airlines can retrofit their planes.

Here’s why the experts said Europe’s decision is unlikely to trigger the end of no-fly mode in American skies.

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Europe uses different frequencies for 5G

US airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have been concerned that 5G could interfere with aircraft radio altimeters, which measure altitude and are critical for low-visibility landings. Altimeters operate at frequencies around 4.2 to 4.4 GHz, and some altimeters without modern filtering technology can pick up interference from devices operating on nearby frequencies.

5G networks in the United States use 3.7 and 3.98 GHz, which provides relatively little “gap distance” from the altimeter frequency, said Shrihari Pandit, co-founder and CEO of ISP Stealth Communications.

“If you don’t have this type [filter] to keep the signal in sync, it can pick up background noise, like from onboard devices, and that can change the readings,” Pandit said.

Cell carriers and the aviation industry have presented conflicting studies on how 5G affects altimeters. Airlines retrofit their planes to improve altimeter sensitivity or add metal shielding to reduce interference from 5G; they recently asked cell operators for an extension from July 2023 to the end of 2023 complete the upgrades, according to Reuters.

In Europe, however, 5G operates at a frequency band of 5 GHz and above, providing significantly more headroom from the altimeter frequency and reducing concern for airlines.

“There is much less prospect of interference,” said Dai Whittingham, chief executive of the UK Flight Safety Committee. BBC. “We have a different set of frequencies for 5G and there are lower power settings than what is allowed in the US”

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Airplane is a “tin can”

Pandit said another concern, even in Europe, is the output power from hundreds of devices collectively searching for signal in an airplane’s “tin can.”

Cell phones emit their strongest signals while trying to connect with an antenna, meaning the “accumulated power output will be quite significant,” he said.

It’s unclear what effect such a strong signal might have, but it raises concerns about aircraft electronic equipment and the health of passengers, he said. Airplanes may need even more sensitive altimeters and RF shielding to prevent leakage from the cabin to the electronics below, he noted.

Tom Wheeler, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and now a visiting fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said concerns about altimeter interference are largely overblown.

“The reality is that the vast majority of aircraft have altimeters that are shielded from the signals,” he said, and older models are being replaced or shielded.

Wheeler also noted that aircraft are exposed to heavy radio frequency emissions when they are on or near the ground and operate without problems.

“The body of the aircraft is exposed to all kinds of RF emissions that far trump what cell phones in seat 10C might do,” he said.

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European airlines to rely on router-like ‘picocells’

To provide reliable service in the air, European airlines will use picocells, according to the EU announcement. Picocells act like mini cell phone towers that transmit a low-power signal over a small area, such as an airplane, reducing the need for devices to hop between towers, Wheeler said.

These picocells will connect either to satellite networks or networks on the ground, like a WiFi router or hotspot, Pandit said.

Wheeler said advances in picocell technology largely alleviate the technical concerns that prompted the ban on airborne cellphone use in the first place.

“The result of [picocells] was that you could use mobile devices on airplanes because they didn’t interfere with the ground-based antennas,” he said.

Feeling that the technical concerns were out of the way, Wheeler led an effort by the FCC in 2013 to consider lifting the ban on cell phone use on US aircraft. But he said he quickly ran into opposition from the FAA and the aviation industry over an entirely separate concern: people “jacking” on their cell phones.

In-flight calls affect the customer experience

“All hell broke loose because it turns out that airlines and the FAA had banked on that rule to prevent people from talking on their cellphones,” Wheeler said.

The regulatory proceedings over the rule eventually stalled over customer experience issues, Wheeler said. Then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in 2017 he stood “with airline pilots, flight attendants and America’s flying public against the FCC’s ill-conceived 2013 plan,” Reuters reportedand the effort officially ended in 2020.

Wheeler said the US ban on mobile phone use in flight stems from a “different technical reality”, but any move towards Europe to lift it would also have to take into account the passenger experience.

Pandit said he is neutral on the EU decision but prefers a quiet cabin and questions the need for 5G when most airlines now offer in-flight WiFi.

“There are certainly applications for business – you want connectivity, but I’m just wondering, isn’t WiFi sufficient?” he said. “Almost every device that supports 4G or 5G will have WiFi capability.”

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