It looks like airplane mode will become a thing of the past in the European Union (EU) starting next year, following the European Commission’s decision to allow airline passengers to use data and even perhaps make calls while in the air. The ruling will allow airlines to provide 5G technology rather than offering historically slow free wifi or requiring passengers to pay for data access.
Under the new rules, airline passengers will be able to stream music and videos, access their apps, and make phone calls on planes equipped with 5G. The plan will “enable innovative services for people” and help European companies grow, Thierry Breton, the EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, said in a statement.
“The sky is no longer a limit when it comes to possibilities offered by super-fast, high-capacity connectivity,” he added.
Airlines will use special network equipment called ‘pico-cell’ to route calls, texts, and data through a satellite network that connects the airplane to the ground-based mobile network.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) first introduced rules prohibiting the use of cellular telephones in 1991 “to guard against the threat of harmful interference from airborne use of cellular phones to terrestrial cellular networks,” the FCC wrote in a 2013 docket.
It’s been said that the reason for banning cell phone use on airplanes is because it could interfere with the pilot’s navigation systems. However, Business Insider reported in 2017 that the FCC instated the airplane cell phone ban to “protect against radio interference to cell phone networks on the ground.”
If all airlines allowed cell phone access at 40,000 feet in the air, multiple cell towers on the ground could pick up on service from active cell phones which could crowd the ground networks, disrupting service, according to the outlet.
Dai Whittingham, chief executive of the UK Flight Safety Committee, told the BBC that using cell phones on aircraft was historically prohibited because of a lack of knowledge about how they would affect the plane.
“There was a concern they could interfere with automatic flight control systems,” Whittingham told the outlet. “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 airplane mode.”
The concern for 5G interference has remained a concern in the U.S., but Whittingham said the same concerns don’t apply 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 traveling 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.”
Under the new ruling, EU state members will need to make 5G technology accessible on airlines by June 30, 2023.