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Europe edges closer to mobile phones on planes

European telecom regulator issues proposals that would let passengers use their handsets on European flights.

The likelihood of mobile-phone usage being allowed on flights within Europe increased on Thursday after telecommunications regulator Ofcom issued a consultation on the matter.

The issue has been brewing for many years but has been hampered until now by concerns over safety and the commercial viability of business models. The regulator's new proposals are the result of negotiations within the European Union, and will therefore cover all European airspace--although what will happen with flights leaving that airspace remains to be seen.

Ofcom is proposing a situation where a mobile base station would be allowed to be installed on a plane. Calls would be routed by satellite and would be treated as if the user were roaming. The revenue would come from a deal between the airline and an onboard operator. There are two operators currently able to offer such a service: OnAir and Aeromobile.

According to an Ofcom representative, the drive toward the new proposals has come from OnAir (a joint venture with Airbus and the airline industry body SITA) and Aeromobile (a joint venture between the Norwegian telco Telenor and the transport communications company ARINC), rather than the airlines themselves. However, many airlines--including Ryanair, BMI and Air France--have previously expressed interest.

As is currently the case, all mobile telephony equipment would need to be switched off during landing and takeoff. It would then be allowed to be on at a minimum height of 9,842 feet (3,000 meters). The first phase of the service's introduction would enable GSM voice and GPRS data, but it may extend to 3G and beyond in the future.

Ofcom's representative conceded that, despite pan-European agreement and similar moves being undertaken in some other countries, including Australia, the service may hit problems when flying over countries without similar regulations.

"Potentially, once the system is up and running, when you fly into other airspace outside the EU you would have to comply with the individual countries' jurisdiction and their regulations," Ofcom's spokesperson said. "If they haven't got the system in place it might be turned off."

The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority ruled earlier this month that it would not allow mobile calls on planes for the foreseeable future. And the Daily Telegraph has launched a campaign against in-flight mobile use.

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.