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EU harmonizes in-flight mobile calls, eyes prices

The European Commission on Monday unveiled a pan-EU approach to licensing in-flight calls.

The EU executive is harmonizing the use of mobile communications on aircraft in EU airspace so that an estimated 90% of passengers who carry a mobile can make and receive calls, text messages and use email.

The aim is to provide a licensing “one-stop shop” for airlines and avoid a patchwork of approaches emerging as in-flight calls using personal mobile phones start to take off.

“One regulatory decision for all European airspace was required for this new service to come into being,” said EU Telecoms Commissioner Viviane Reding.

Reding has stepped in to cap the price of mobile calls made on land in the 27-nation bloc and wants to ensure callers in the air will not be ripped off either.

The industry will be given a chance to show it can offer competitive services before any possible intervention.

“Now we expect operators to be transparent and innovative in their price offerings. However, if consumers receive shock phone bills, the service will not take off,” Reding said.

Passenger phones would be linked to an on-board network that connects to the ground via satellite so that aircraft equipment is not affected.

Phones will have to be switched off for take-off and landing, with usage only above 3,000 meters. Passengers would be billed in the usual way.

The Commission expects the service to be popular as it will be cheaper than the back-of-seat satellite services.

Reding said airlines should ensure passengers are not disturbed by people on the phone and that they can enjoy what her spokesman called “zones of tranquility.”

“It's common sense airlines offer that. The Commission will not regulate on this issue, which is a fact of modern life,” the spokesman told a regular news briefing.

British communications watchdog Ofcom is to allow airlines to offer mobile use on board in line with the EU approach. Air France is already trialing the use of mobiles in-air.

Reding's measures will harmonize and simplify the technical requirements for using mobile phones and the way EU states will grant national licenses to airlines.

An aircraft registered in France or Spain would be able to offer mobile communications services to passengers when flying over Germany or Hungary without having to apply for additional national licenses. (Reuters)