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The Legalities of Cellular Communications from the Air

By Flightcell International

We sometimes get asked about the legality of using cellular technology from aircraft, particularly in the United States. This article discusses the history, the current regulations and the practicalities associated with it.

A rule was put in place back when the U.S. had disjointed state-by-state cellular networks. The technology at the time had problems with airborne assets confusing cellar networks so the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created rule Title 47, Part 22, Subpart H §22.925: Prohibition on airborne operation of cellular telephones. The focus of this rule was around the use of portable cell phones by passengers in commercial aircraft and subsequent reviews still refer to this group of users.

We know that it is not being policed; hundreds of thousands of portable interface devices have been sold to allow for pilots all over the United States to use their cell phones while flying. These come in the form of installed and portable devices and include Bose, David Clarke and Lightspeed headsets that all have built in cellular interfaces available. As far as we know, no prosecutions have occurred.

Some believe the FCC is reluctant to update this rule because there is pressure being asserted from U.S. associations - the Association of Flight Attendants in particular. They do not want passengers to be able to use their mobile phones in-flight - by law.

The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) have evolved their thinking around the use of cellular technology on board to include use of cell phones in aircraft at the operator’s discretion. In passenger aircraft you can make a cell phone call via a picocell.  Aircell/Gogo and Smartsky networks are essentially offering upward beaming cellular networks.

Flightcell has sold thousands of cellular capable units into the U.S.A with no issues. The majority have been sold to law enforcement, air ambulance, firefighting, military and federal agency customers. The use of cellular connections for voice and data is widespread and arguably, now essential for some operators. Clearly the FCC rule is well behind the practice on this. We have not had a single customer encounter a problem with the FCC or the FAA.

We are the communications equipment of choice for Leonardo Helicopters and Bell, Airbus, MD, Lockheed Martin, and Textron Aviation have all installed Flightcell DZMx’s with cellular capabilities at the factory for their customers. They are installed under an airframe modification and the connection for the cellular network is through a TSO’d Antenna. This TSO’d antenna provides voice and data connections and is approved by the FAA.

It is also important to consider the future and to where cellular technology is headed. For disaster relief and emergency services – FirstNet (First Responder Network) and the cellular Band 14, are for the use of both ground and air services to have open access to the network in times of network loading. FirstNet capable aircraft intend to use the AT&T Cell network year-round and not just when FirstNet pre-emption is needed.

Many aviation companies are developing aviation approved Multiple-Input and Multiple Output (MIMO) cellular solutions for increased bandwidth and connectivity on-board aircraft. State-of-the-art unmanned commercial aircraft use cellular networks for beyond line of sight navigation and for the transmission of images to the ground. This will be even more commonplace in the years to come, and if the regulation was to suddenly be enforced, the technology onboard next-generation aircraft would be severely compromised.

So, the regulation is still in place because it still serves a purpose for some, however it is no longer relevant to modern-day cellular networks and modern-day circumstances. It is not being enforced and it is not enforceable – due to the multitude of deliberate breeches that occur daily and because technology has evolved to the point where it has become irrelevant. Cellular communications from the air is essential for today’s first responders and agencies and it will become even more important for airborne operations in the future.

Photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash