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Could the U.S. soon allow cell phone calls on flights?

In November, the European Commission ruled that airlines can provide 5G technology on their planes, allowing passengers on flights within the European Union to use their cell phones to make calls mid-air. Could the United States soon follow? Here's everything you need to know:

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of wireless technology, able to provide faster speed and better connectivity than previous iterations.

Why did the European Commission make this decision about 5G on planes?

Thierry Breton, the EU's commissioner for the internal market, said 5G "will enable innovative services for people and growth opportunities for European companies. The sky is no longer a limit when it comes to possibilities offered by super-fast, high-capacity connectivity." The details are still being worked out, Euronews reports, but this should mean that passengers will no longer have to put their phones on airplane mode, which disables functions that require a transmission signal. This will let them make phone calls, stream music and videos, and use apps.

When will 5G be on the planes?

EU member states have until June 30, 2023, to make 5G frequency bands available for aircraft.

Why can't you use cell phones on flights in the United States?

In 1991, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) banned cell phone calls during flights over concerns that mobile frequencies could interfere with the electronic systems of planes. Due to technological advancements, this is no longer an issue, but phones that are not in airplane mode can cause interference on an aircraft's radios, which can distract and annoy pilots, Condé Nast Traveler reports. In 2014, the FCC asked for public comments on whether to lift the ban, and a majority of the 1,400 people who responded said they were opposed.

What are the concerns over 5G on U.S. airplanes?

An aircraft's radio altimeter measures altitude, and pilots rely on this information being correct during bad weather landings where visibility is poor. As The Washington Post explains, altimeters operate at frequencies of about 4.2 to 4.4 GHz, and U.S. 5G networks use 3.7 and 3.98 GHz. This results in little "gap spacing" from the altimeter frequency, Stealth Communications CEO Shrihari Pandit told the Post. "If you don't have this type of [filter] to keep the signal in sync, it can pick up background noise, like from onboard devices, and that could alter the readings." Because of this concern, as well as conflicting studies showing the affect 5G has on altimeters, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and U.S. airlines have concerns over providing the technology on planes, and cell carriers are currently limiting 5G near airports.

Is there a difference between 5G frequencies in the U.S. and Europe?

Yes. In Europe, 5G usually operates at 3.8 GHz and below, meaning "there is much less prospect of interference" with altitude measurements, Dai Whittingham, CEO of the UK Flight Safety Committee, told BBC News. "We have a different set of frequencies for 5G, and there are lower power settings than those that have been allowed in the U.S."

Is anything being done in the U.S. to reduce 5G interference on planes?

U.S. airlines have been given deadlines to retrofit their planes to reduce interference from 5G, with smaller regional aircraft needing to have this done by the end of December. Several aviation unions and companies recently sent a letter to the White House requesting "to mandate an extension of mitigation by wireless carriers," Reuters reports, writing that it is "critical to extend these mitigations through the end of 2023 to allow airlines time to complete the retrofit." The signatories said that because of global supply chain issues, it will be near impossible for airlines to get the retrofits finished in time.

Do experts think phone calls might soon be allowed on U.S. flights?

It's not expected in the near future. Not only do these airplane 5G retrofits need to be finished, but the public and carriers also need to come around to the idea of phone calls in the air. Aircrafts are "tin cans," the Post writes, and experts are concerned about the possibility of hundreds of people on a flight trying at the same time to get a signal. When a cell phone is attempting to connect with an antenna, it sends out its strongest signal, and "the cumulative power output is going to be pretty significant," Pandit told the Post. More research is expected on how this could affect the health of passengers and the plane's equipment.

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