How Europe is totally owning our in-flight electronics policy, again

November 14, 2013

Americans are feeling pretty smug after winning the right to use portable electronics on airplanes during takeoff and landing. In fact, we even beat Europe to the new rules by several weeks.

But Europe is already leapfrogging ahead, thanks to a decision today from the European Commission that lets passengers use high-speed mobile data straight from their devices while in the air. The guidelines will make it possible for consumers to send e-mail and browse the Web at 3G and 4G LTE speeds, once airlines install the right equipment.

Here's how the system works. Signals get passed from a passenger's phone or tablet to a base station on the aircraft, which then relays the data to one of the dozens of communications satellites orbiting the Earth. The satellites pass the data to ground networks owned and operated by the wireless carriers, who then route it like normal. The low-power approach is a technical way of ensuring that in-flight devices don't interfere with aircraft electronics or terrestrial devices on Earth.

All that service comes at a cost, though. European fliers will be charged by their wireless providers at "rest of world" roaming rates, which could easily add up. And, of course, whether they can take advantage of the speeds at all depends on whether the airlines decide it's cost-effective to install the base stations.

Still, it's not a totally untested system. Back in 2008, European carriers got approval to start offering voice services using the same technology — and not long after that, support was added for data services over 2G. Today's rule expands on those, adding 3G and 4G spectrum to the mix.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, we're still stuck with plain-old in-flight Wi-Fi, in part because even our newest portable electronics guidelines come with a catch: Passengers have to keep their devices on airplane mode the whole time they're on board, unless they're connecting to the Web with paid services such as Gogo or Row 44.

One byproduct of this is that the U.S. market for in-flight Internet will probably remain limited to a few providers for the foreseeable future. Why don't more businesses, particularly wireless carriers, enter the market? Part of it has to do with cost — Gogo's system involves a pricey combination of cell towers that only talk to airplanes, as well as deals with satellite companies — but as Europe seems to show, there's clear demand for an in-flight Internet solution that doesn't require customers to pay a third party.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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