Upwardly Mobile Service

Technology: Boeing has given airline passengers high-speed Internet access, and now Airbus aims to extend their cellular roaming to the skies.

September 30, 2004|By John Cook and Paul Nyhan | John Cook and Paul Nyhan,SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

Airbus demonstrated a new technology this month that would allow travelers to make calls from personal cellular phones while in flight -- a major advancement in communications but a potential headache for those annoyed by the chatter of fellow passengers.

The test, on an Airbus A320 above Toulouse, France, was the result of more than two years of research the European jet maker and its partners hope will bring affordable mobile phone calling to the skies.

The key is a "picocell" inside the plane that transmits the mobile phone call through a computer server to the satellite networks of Globalstar, which pass on the call to cellular or land-line networks. Airbus plans to have the in-flight phone network installed on aircraft in 2006.

The recent test was successful in transmitting calls to mobile and traditional phones on the ground, as well as to another passenger's cellular phone on the aircraft, the company said. It also tested several mobile phones simultaneously, with passengers sending text messages or placing voice calls.

There is nothing magical about in-flight cellular service, but it faces the major obstacles of price and noise, according to executives at Connexion, a Boeing unit developing a high-speed Internet and e-mail service.

Ambient noise -- the steady drone you hear while flying -- makes it hard to hear over cellular connections, according to Connexion President Scott Carson, so callers might shout louder than they usually do when making cell phone calls.

And Carson said the latest test doesn't make cell phones cheaper to use, as passengers would still rely on an expensive system that could well discourage adoption.

"We could do that. We would prefer to wait until there is clearly a market for it," he said.

Boeing is developing an in-flight service at Connexion that offers real-time Internet and e-mail service. Connexion projects sales of $3 billion during the next 10 years.

The Airbus test is the latest effort to open phone lines for use in flight. Passengers have been able to use phones built into headrests, but paid roughly $4 a minute after an initial $4 for access, according to the Associated Press.

American Airlines has removed many of its headrest phones. In July, it tested another idea, an in-flight cellular service from Qualcomm Inc.; Qualcomm plans to work on the service during the next two years, checking to see whether its signals conflict with a jet's avionics.

And Boeing is testing its own "Joe Phone," a wireless phone that relies on a sensitive headset designed to discourage shouting. The Joe Phone, though, is set for use only on private networks -- flight crews communicating directly with staff on the ground and other closed systems.

The technology, though, holds the promise that one day passengers could use it to make calls, according to Connexion executives.

Regulators must also be involved. The Federal Communications Commission and Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibit the use of cellular phones while a plane is in flight.

"We do it for safety purposes," said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. "It would have to be proved to us that there is no possibility for interference with any of the equipment on the airplane."

The FAA is working with the RTCA Inc., a private nonprofit organization that studies communications, air traffic control and navigation systems, to learn more about the safety of in-flight cellular phone calling.

The Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this article.

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