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Current legal and technical position regarding the airborne use of [3G] data services?

What is the current legal and technical position on this topic a) in UK airspace, b) in wider EU airspace?

I'm aware that 'mobiles should be turned off' in flight (for airlines 'during takeoff and landing'), but I've noticed (even though I or my passenger have occasionally forgotten to do so), that the use of a 3G service on my iPhone does not seem to have any affect on my Mode S transponder, my VHF radio or any other 'aircraft system', in any way. I'm regularly told on scheduled flights to turn mobiles (and GPS receivers btw) off of course . . .

I am, (and this question is therefore immediately relevant to those who exercise the rights of), a UK SEP PPL(A) flyer.

EuropaBoy
EGBW

This one has been doing the rounds ever since (and probably long before) I started flying

My feeling is that there is no clear prohibition on the use of GSM phones in the air, on a private flight.

There is a lot of confusion in the published "regs". Much of that 2004 doc refers to what are obviously AOC (paying passengers, essentially) operations and is not applicable to private flying. But it is thrown together in a confusing way. About the only thing they didn't throw into their referenced docs is the Magna Carta.

It is also not a law. It is a recommendation / a CAA writer's opinion. In the UK, the law is the ANO, and the Civil Aviation Act.

Then there are various regs about using radio equipment when airborne.

Together with the CAA Safety leaflets, there are so many regs, and quasi-regs, and recommendations, etc, that you can pick the one you want to use for any argument

Yet, "everybody" does use a phone airborne, including on airliners - or would do if it worked except that it doesn't usually work at any altitude.

It is often said that the mobile networks don't like this because it causes a lot of network activity because the phone can be in contact with a lot of towers concurrently. Yet, the system must be designed to withstand this because so many people board airliners and forget to switch their phones off.

For the GA pilot, there are perhaps 2 technical issues: does it work, and can it interfere with aircraft systems.

My own experience is that SMS messages work generally below about 2000ft, and they presumably work because they are short packets which need only a fleeting GSM connection.

Voice works poorly, with frequent cutoffs, presumably because of signal interruptions caused by frequent tower switching.

Data (GPRS or 3G) works even less, but some people say it works well for them (no idea how high they fly).

The only "data" I ever found reliable-ish was the nowadays rarely used 9.6k dial-up (which is in the original GSM spec) where you dial an ISP that operates dial-in calls. Not many do nowadays. The 9.6k connection is slow but I used it successfully on my early trips into Europe.

Regards navigation systems interference, I have never seen anything attributable to a mobile phone, but avionics interference in general is quite common. You have the 11th and 13th VHF harmonics affecting GPS, some DME frequencies likewise, etc, so it's conceivable that it might happen. I turn off my phone if flying an approach in real IMC.

Administrator
Shoreham EGKA, United Kingdom

I've been monitoring 3G connectivity for a couple of years (Since iPad). Broadly, 3G will not work above about 1000' in UK or Germany. However it will work in some parts of France where I've been able to send photo's by email at medium levels c. 5000'.

In the US 3G will usually work wherever there's any signal and again I've been able to email photos at levels up to 10,000'. I've also been able to download an entire Foreflight chart where my route crossed a sectional boundary that I hadn't spotted on the ground. I've also found that Foreflight's wonderful real time weather is almost always up to date in real time.

In New Zealand 3G access seems all pervasive with full web browsing, email and SkyDemon functionality at levels up to 6000' (The highest my 150 wanted to go!).

Most of this 3G enabled flying is in mountainous areas which might be relevant. Flying with 3G is like reaching out and touching the future, flying as it ought to be.

EGBW / KPRC, United Kingdom

never had any interference issues. i work on getting 3g reception when below 2000 feet. and i have been known to drop below this level to check weather rainy days update and text the missis when i am running late.

Not that I am a conspiracy theorist... but someone did tell me once that the ban on the phones in flight has more to do with the networks crashing than interference.

It did make sense to me: if you imagine all the commercial aircraft within the London TMA whizzing around, and the number of mobile phones trying to login to the base stations at speed, it would crash the networks...

But because they said it was a safety issue they had to extend it to all aircraft... This explanation does make sense to me.

I will caveat it though, because the same person did also try to convince me that it wasn't ice that brought down the 777 at Heathrow, but the Electronic Counter Measures on the Queen's Flight aircraft carrying Gordon Brown that left Northholt minutes before the crash...

It did make sense to me: if you imagine all the commercial aircraft within the London TMA whizzing around, and the number of mobile phones trying to login to the base stations at speed, it would crash the networks...

I agree, but the fact is that a lot of airline passengers don't turn their phones off, yet the networks don't crash, so they must have found a way to deal with the issue.

I reckon they just cut your specific phone off

Administrator
Shoreham EGKA, United Kingdom

I reckon they just cut your specific phone off

Maybe, or we just live in a completely risk adverse culture where no one can say "BOO!" without a risk assessment of the causal factors of heart attacks completed.

My feeling is that there is no clear prohibition on the use of GSM phones in the air, on a private flight.

If there is a prohibition it will be in the phone companies 3G licence; your phone operates under the conditions of that licence.

My feeling is that there is no clear prohibition on the use of GSM phones in the air, on a private flight

Even if there was, it's near impossible to police and although through methods of triangulation, your position between cell masts can be detected, I dont know if your altitude can be discovered. Technically its no doubt possible, but whether they have the infrastructure to do that I dont know. Others more into electronics might be able to say I am wrong. Even if they could, would it really free up much bandwidth cutting off signals for anyone +500 AGL or something?

I reckon it's mostly to do with the unknowns (or maybe they are 'knowns' now) about aircraft navigation electronics, plus a good dose of cautiosness. Anyhow, having suffered on a daily basis hearing half of people's disturbing conversations on the train every day, I am delighted you cant use them at least on commercial flights :-)))

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