In-flight cell phone systems gain altitude

Ericsson and a European partnership unveiled mobile phone cells for airliners this week.

The possibility of cell phone calls on airliners, for better or worse, took a few steps closer to reality this week with the announcement of two on-board cellular systems.

Ericsson said Monday it will have an onboard GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) base station available by the end of the year. Also Monday, an in-flight cellular system from the AeroMobile partnership was exhibited on a new model of The Boeing Co.'s 777 airliner at the Paris Air Show.

Mobile technology vendors are lining up to serve what could be a huge market -- the International Commercial Aviation Organization counted almost 1.9 billion airline passengers last year -- but regulatory hurdles remain, along with concern over the possible social fallout from passengers being allowed to talk in a crowded airliner cabin.

Cell phone use on airliners has not been allowed because of possible interference with the plane's navigation system as well as with the ground-based cell network. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last December proposed a rule change that would allow the use of some cell phones.

Stockholm-based Ericsson took its existing RBS 2000 family base station design, reduced its size and weight and introduced the RBS 2708, according to Ericsson spokesman Peter Olofsson. It also added an electromagnetic screening device and a special enclosure that prevent the base station from interfering with the plane's navigation system or ground-based cell towers, he added.

As many as 60 passengers could make or receive calls at one time on the base station, which uses a satellite uplink to connect to the land-based phone network. Multiple RBS 2708 base stations could be installed on a large plane in order to give more passengers coverage, Olofsson said. The system would require some management but would be easy for an airliner crew to handle, he said. It works on the 1800MHz frequency and supports GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) data networks.

AeroMobile, formed by Arinc and Norwegian carrier Telenor, showed off a cell system that can use the existing Inmarsat satellite communications systems in most long-haul planes as an uplink, according to an AeroMobile news release. AeroMobile's system will travel with the Boeing B777-20LR Worldliner on a world promotional tour later this year, AeroMobile said.

In-flight cellular coverage could be provided by an airline, an aircraft manufacturer or a mobile operator and carry a standard roaming charge, Ericsson's Olofsson said. Passengers could start using their GSM phones as soon as the plane reached its cruising altitude and could continue to use them while flying over oceans because of the satellite uplink. The crew could turn off the system at night or at other times out of consideration for other passengers, he said.

All GPRS and EDGE data services as well as text messaging would also be available, though delays inherent in the satellite uplink cause GPRS to work more slowly than usual, according to Olofsson. Although the initial system will use only 1800MHz, a frequency commonly used for GSM in Europe and elsewhere but not in North America, it would not be hard to modify the design to use other frequencies in the future, he said. Future products could also support UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) high-speed data, though the speed of the satellite uplink could limit passengers' data experience.

Though Ericsson is set to offer its base station this year and other vendors have demonstrated working systems, it's not clear when regulators will be ready for age of ringtones in the air. In the U.S. alone, both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration would have to approve the change.

Ericsson is confident that day will come.

"Our overall message here is that the regulatory issues are not an obstacle. That is our assumption," Olofsson said.

Bob Egan, an analyst at Mobile Competency, in Providence, Rhode Island, isn't so sure.

"While technically, I think we could see approval on newer airplanes (within 12 months), there are some procedural and governmental issues that may be more significant," Egan said.

For one thing, the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly expressed concern recently about terrorists using cell phones to plan attacks or set off bombs on planes. And in comments to the FCC last month, the National Consumers League and the Association of Flight Attendants submitted the results of a survey in which 63 percent of respondents favored keeping the cell-phone ban in place. Airlines will have to look at the welfare of their employees and of the passengers as a whole before they allow cell phones on their planes, Egan said.

IDC analyst Shiv Bakhshi thinks many passengers would welcome such services for voice calls, while switching over to in-flight Wi-Fi services when they want high-speed data.

"I think this is a good idea, from Ericsson's point of view. Imagine how many flights take off every day," Bakhshi said. "From a social perspective, having that moron next to you talking in a loud voice, is this a good idea? I think it's terrible."

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