Brussels approves spectrum for 5G on planes and WiFi on public transport
Dec 08, 2022 by Laura Sear


Tags1800 MHz, 2.1 GHz, 5 GHz, 5G, aircraft, CEPT, European Commission, WiFi

The European Commission has approved harmonised technical conditions for the 1800 MHz and 2.1 GHz bands to allow passengers to make calls, text and use their data services in midair. Brussels has also opened up 5 GHz for WiFi on buses and public transport.

“Since 2008, the Commission’s implementing decision has reserved certain frequencies for mobile communications on planes, allowing airlines to provide messaging, phone calls and data services to passengers flying in the EU,” the Commission said.

These reserved frequencies in the 1800 MHz and 2.1 GHz bands, now have an updated regulatory framework to allow mobile devices to access a 5G network.

Services will be provided from within the cabin of a mobile communications service aircraft (MCA), using a picocell to connect users on the aircraft to a mobile network. This cell stays connected through a satellite or ground-based network. Although these small mobile base stations have been fitted into Boeing and Airbus aircraft since 2006, connectivity has always been slow.

The current regulatory framework required a network control unit (NCU) on board an aircraft that prevents mobiles from connecting to a 3G network and prevents interference. European regulatory group CEPT published a report earlier this year concluding that these rules would soon become partially unnecessary.

“The usage of NCU in MCA operations in the 900 MHz band to prevent connection to ground-based networks should remain mandatory,” CEPT said. “The usage of NCU in MCA operations in 2.1 GHz band may be made optional in the near future.”

The European Commission agreed on January 2026 as a deadline for opening up the 2.1 GHz and 1800 MHz bands. “In line with the ongoing pace of upgrading networks to 4G and 5G and of phasing out 3G networks, it is no longer necessary to prevent through an NCU the connection of mobile terminals to terrestrial mobile networks,” CEPT said.

Regarding the 900 MHz band, CEPT expects more delay. “Mobile networks in the 900 MHz band will remain in operation still for a very long time in some EU Member States,” the report said. “CEPT is not able to confirm that UMTS will be switched off in the 900 MHz band in the near future.”

Approximately three per cent of European commercial aircraft are equipped with mobile connectivity systems and have an NCU on board. For non-MCA-equipped aircraft, it is up to airline companies whether to require passengers to switch off their mobile devices.

WiFi on the road

The Commission has also made the 5 GHz band available in the EU for Wi-Fi in cars and buses. It will be available by June 2023.

The new technical conditions of this band enable WiFi installation inside buses and cars (with 40 mW max e.i.r.p.) and inside trains (with 200 mW max e.i.r.p.). The 5170—5250 MHz band will also be opened up for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS i.e. drones) as an exceptional outdoor use case.

5 GHz WiFi on aeroplanes is not allowed above 5250 MHz since it is required to use dynamic frequency selection (DFS). According to CEPT, “DFS is not designed to accommodate use inside airborne platforms”.

This story was covered by several national and international publications. Some outlets reported that the 5 GHz band would be used to provide a 5G mobile connection on planes, claiming that the bands were chosen to prevent interference with altimeters. The Washington Post made a correction to its story after PolicyTracker pointed out the error.•