Licensing of GSM Onboard Aircraft – The Norwegian
The Norwegian Post and Telecommunications Authority (NPT) agreed, in the autumn of
2005, that it was beneficial and important to the citizens of Norway to have access to GSM
services while travelling by air between countries.
Applicants for radio frequency licences in this respect were, inter alia, granted the right to
use GSM 1800 channels
(i) onboard any aircrafts in Norwegian airspace,
(ii) onboard Norwegian aircrafts when in flight over the high seas,
(iii) onboard Norwegian aircrafts when in flight in the airspace of foreign states, subject to
the requirements of the law in the states in question.
This document explains the reasoning for granting such a licence.
2. Norwegian Licensing Considerations
2.1 Terrestrial GSM Licence Exclusivity
In Norway, various licences for the GSM 900 and GSM 1800 frequency bands have been
granted in the period between 1991 and 2005. An important part in the assessment of
GSM onboard aircraft has been the level of protection that can be claimed by existing
licensees and the level of exclusivity offered in the existing licences.
The concept of exclusivity requires clarification. The licence holder is not the only party
legally emitting radio energy which affects the electromagnetic field in the exclusive
frequency band, at the geographical location, and within the period of time in question. The
NPT considers the GSM licences assigned as exclusive in the sense that the licensee is
the only party which may emit radio waves of certain intensity on Norwegian territory. The
licensee is also protected from interference from other spectrum users to a certain degree.
Before considering the possibilities of granting authorisation, the NPT had to assess the
level of interference protection and the geographical scope of exclusive rights assigned.
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When determining the level of exclusivity, it is relevant to consider “upwards” exclusivity for
the use of frequencies above ground and whether or not the terms of the exclusivity are
explicitly stated or not.
Similarly, it is relevant to consider “outward” exclusivity for the use of frequencies at sea
when the regulatory authority is considering the use of GSM frequencies onboard vessels.
2.2 Explicit “upward” limitation of exclusivity in Norway
The NPT does not consider that the existing GSM licences assign exclusive rights to use
frequencies above Norwegian territory. The question of whether the licences establish
exclusive rights comprising Norwegian air-space are not explicitly addressed in previously
assigned licences. Neither was the question of whether such exclusive rights should be
part of the licence considered. Later licences (from 2001 and onwards) state explicitly that
exclusivity is limited to terrestrial services on Norwegian territory.
2.3 Exclusivity interpretations
Generally, no exclusive rights of use that are not explicitly mentioned in the licence can be
deemed to have been assigned unless other “rules” of interpretation clearly supports such
In short, the “rules” of interpretation that were considered are:
- the intent of the government when granting the licences,
- the purpose of spectrum management,
- whether legitimate expectations of such exclusivity existed on the part of the
It is important to remember that the purpose of assigning exclusive rights is to ensure the
efficient use of resources. It is virtually uncontested that the assignment of exclusive rights
is appropriate in bands suited for terrestrial mobile networks. There are, however, several
reasons why exclusive rights to use frequencies in the airspace should not be established.
The exclusivity right discussed relates to a location in airspace in Norwegian territory. The
aircraft’s cabin is not considered a “location” in this respect. In flight it moves through
locations, in some of which exclusive rights to use the spectrum may have been
established, e.g. on or near the ground.
1. Aeroplanes in flight should never be at the same location simultaneously. Hence, as
long as the strict field strength limits are observed, no negative externalities
(exceeding the levels GSM licensees anyway must accept) should result from
abstaining to establish exclusive rights in the airspace.
2. Profit maximising licensees with no interest in GSM onboard aircrafts may have
incentives to obstruct the realisation of a valuable service, since in-flight GSM
communication is not viable unless all (theoretical) licensees holding exclusive
licenses agree to accept such use of the spectrum. It might be impossible to reach
such an agreement in a realistic timeframe.
3. Finally, we do not foresee any service that requires the establishing of exclusive
rights to use spectrum in the airspace.
Since the establishing of exclusive rights to use the spectrum in national airspace probably
does not promote the efficient use of resources, it can hardly be argued that, in the
absence of other arguments, the assignment of such rights was the government’s intent
when assigning the spectrum. Neither could the existence of legitimate expectations of
exclusive rights comprising airspace at the time of the assignment be established.
However, the NPT consider that the licensees are entitled to protection from interference
from radio signals emitted from aeroplanes flying through Norwegian air space in the same
manner and to the same degree that they are protected from interference from radio
stations established in an adjacent geographic area.
3. An Alternative Approach To Licensing – Efficient Use Of
GSM onboard aircrafts could be licensed in Norway because the terrestrial licences did not
explicitly cover airspace and because NPT did not believe that the relevant authorities at
the time had the intention of including the airspace in the original licences.
Some countries have GSM licences that include airspace to a specific or “imaginary” level
of altitude. When considering the use of GSM onboard aircrafts and the further
development of pan-European or global services, it is relevant to look into the purpose of
The purpose of assigning exclusive rights is to ensure the efficient use of resources. The
least onerous authorisation system possible should be used to allow the provision of
networks and services to allow operators and consumers to benefit from these. It is
undisputed that terrestrial mobile networks require exclusive licences, but NPT believes
that general authorisations are suitable for GSM onboard aircraft.
Pursuant to Article 6 of the Constitution of the International Telecommunications Union,
the Member States are bound to take the necessary steps to impose the observance of
the provisions of the Constitution, the Convention and the Administrative Regulations upon
operating agencies authorized by them which operate stations capable of causing harmful
interference to the radio services of other countries.
An operating agency is any individual, company, corporation or governmental agency
which operates a telecommunication installation intended for an international
telecommunication service or capable of causing harmful interference with such a service.
Pursuant to Section 6-2, cf. Section 1-3 of the Norwegian Electronic Communications Act,
the use of radio frequencies on and above Norwegian territory and on a Norwegian aircraft
is subject to the grant of a right of use by the NPT. The nationality of aircraft is based on
registration, cf. The Convention on International Civil Aviation Art. 17.
When the aircraft is in Norwegian airspace the requirement for a right of use follows from
the territorial principle as defined in general international law. When the aircraft is over the
high seas or in the airspace of a foreign state, the requirements of the law apply according
to the nationality principle.
When the aircraft enters foreign airspace, a case of concurrent jurisdiction arises, since
both the registering state and the local sovereign may exercise jurisdiction in respect of
activities associated with the aircraft for breaches of their respective laws. Thus,
Norwegian licences does not preclude that the use of a radio station located onboard
aircrafts may be subject to the grant of a right of use by the administrations of other states
in addition to the Norwegian licence, when entering the airspace of other states, cf. The
Convention on International Civil Aviation Art. 30 (a).
The Norwegian licence specifies the radio channels that may be used when the aircraft is
in Norwegian airspace and over the high seas. When the aircraft enters foreign airspace,
the radio channels that can be used (if any) may be subject to the requirement of the laws
of the foreign state.
The onboard radio equipment must be certified in accordance with the relevant regulatory
requirements for such equipment.
5. Licence Conditions – Technical and Operational
The licensee is responsible for ensuring that the use of frequencies does not significantly
reduce the quality of, disturb, or repeatedly interrupt, other radio services operated in
accordance with statutes, regulations, and licences issued by the telecommunications
authorities. The licensee must take into account that this will also apply when using
frequencies that are assigned on ground. In particular the licensee must not cause
interference to existing or future licensed stations on ground and must yield to new
stations on ground, where interference occurs.
5.1 Network Control Unit (NCU)
In order to avoid interference with terrestrial networks and to control the radio frequency
emissions of all mobile stations onboard the aircraft, a network control unit (NCU) must be
implemented. The NCU shall prevent the mobile stations within the cabin from accessing
terrestrial networks and ensure that the mobile stations do not transmit any signal without
being controlled by the onboard GSM system. The NCU shall be in accordance with
forthcoming relevant harmonised standards.
It has been claimed that a NCU might be regarded as a “jammer” or a “noise emitter” and
hence must be regarded as an illegal device. The NPT regards the NCU as a device that
prevents interference between different systems and is intended to facilitate mobile
communications. The NCU is therefore “not a jammer as the function of a jammer is to
achieve the exact opposite1”.
Similar to the conclusions of the European Commission TCAM 19 (05) 86 on the subject.
5.2 Aircraft in Norwegian airspace
The right to use frequencies is valid only when the aircraft is in cruising altitude and at
least 6000 meters above ground. When the aircraft is in Norwegian airspace and at least
6000 meters above ground, all channels in the GSM 1800 band may be used for the traffic
between an airborne GSM handset and the base transceiver station (BTS) of the pico-cell.
In addition, radio frequencies used for publicly available mobile electronic communication
networks and services may be used by the required NCU, when the aircraft is in
Norwegian airspace and at least 6000 meters above ground insofar such use is necessary
for the GSM equipment onboard the aircraft to operate as intended.
5.3 Aircraft above the high seas
When the Norwegian aircraft is above the high seas and at least 6000 meters above
ground, all channels in the GSM 1800 band may be used. In addition, radio frequencies
used for publicly available mobile electronic communication networks and services may be
used by the required NCU, when the aircraft is at least 6000 meters above ground insofar
such use is necessary for the GSM equipment onboard the aircraft to operate as intended.
5.4 Aircraft in foreign airspace
When the Norwegian aircraft is in foreign airspace and at least 6000 meters above ground,
all channels in the GSM 1800 band may be used. In addition, radio frequencies used for
publicly available mobile electronic communication networks and services may be used by
the required NCU insofar such use is necessary for the GSM equipment onboard the
aircraft to operate as intended.
The right to use radio channels onboard Norwegian aircrafts when in the airspace of
foreign states may be subject to an additional frequency licence from the state in question.
This right of use is subject to the condition that any licence required by such foreign states
is obtained. Such a licence may be awarded individually or under a general authorisation
depending on the licensing regime of the state in question.
6. A Possible Solution for Long-term International Harmonisation of
the Use of GSM Onboard Aircrafts
It is a desirable target to enable operators to provide pan-European, other regional or
global GSM services to passengers travelling by air between countries. The NPT
envisages that such a system could be introduced reciprocally between states, subject to
national conditions, while ensuring compliance with international regulations with the
lightest authorisation regime possible. Possibly, a system similar to the licensing systems
already in place in the aeronautical and maritime sector could be established.
Key elements in a possible system could be:
1. A licence obtained by the aircraft in question in the flag state in which the aircraft
is registered. (Under a general authorisation or subject to individual decision).
2. Principally harmonized general authorisations defining to what extent foreign
aircrafts can use frequencies while in the airspace of the states issuing such
The system could work in the following way:
An airplane has obtained the necessary licences for operating a “GSM zone” inside the
aircraft from the registering state. This is sufficient while in the registering state’s airspace
or over the high seas. When the aircraft enters Norwegian airspace, a Norwegian
authorisation to use frequencies is required. One proposal is then to let the general
authorisation assign the necessary rights to use frequencies under the condition that the
level of protection enjoyed by Norwegian licensees is respected. When landing and taxing,
the “GSM zone” is shut down.
There is an increased demand for mobile communications continuity for people on the
move. Some of this demand can be met by roaming agreements between operators.
However, there are two markets remaining to ensure the mobile service continuity for
people: the “market in the air” (use of mobile communications onboard aircrafts) and the
“market at sea” (use of mobile communications onboard vessels).
GSM on board aircraft provides the missing link for both passengers and terrestrial GSM
operators. It is possible to provide this service on a non-exclusive, non-protection basis,
and on the condition of non-interference with any terrestrial systems.
For further information please contact:
John-Eivind Velure Espen Slette
E-mail: email@example.com E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Telephone: +47 22 82 48 27 Telephone: +47 22 82 47 03