Plane speaking

1 Jun 2006 by business traveller

For some years now there has been talk of the possibility of mobile phone use in-flight, and a recent spate of announcements by airlines and providers seems to have brought the reality one step closer. It is possible that before the year is out, passengers will be able to talk to the office on their mobile from 30,000ft.

Until now, the use of mobile phones on planes has not been allowed by the regulatory authorities because of concerns that it could interfere with the aircraft's in-flight navigation system, or mobile phone networks on the ground. The reason is that when a mobile is switched on, it attempts to find a signal from a ground network — this search starts as a "whisper", but if the unit is unable to locate a signal, it will gradually start to "shout". A large number of mobiles shouting might interfere with essential navigation equipment, so the authorities have always taken the cautious approach and banned their use.

Enter firms like OnAir and Aeromobile, which have developed technology so that mobiles no longer need to shout to make themselves heard. In the case of OnAir, a device called a "leaky cable", located above the passenger's head, picks up a signal from the mobile phone unit and transfers it to a "picocell" receiver, which in turn relays it to a satellite via an antenna on the outside of the plane, from where it is then beamed to the ground. The same process also works in reverse so that incoming calls can be received.

It sounds complicated but it simply means that phones never need raise their voice, because the receiver is just a few feet away. The technology prevents the phone from trying to connect directly with a ground network. It also indirectly preserves the battery life of the phone, as "whispering" uses up far less energy than shouting. Good news if you plan to talk for several hours, or at least until neighbouring passengers find another use for your phone.

Altobridge, a company supplying much of the software behind the Aeromobile product (and responsible for a similar service available to the maritime sector), has been testing the service for some time.

CEO Mike Fitzgerald explains: "Tests have shown that interference is not an issue with the new technology — the power output of the service is actually a lot lower than experienced during wifi use on planes, something that has been allowed for some time. But, as always, it was going to be up to industry to make the first move — the regulatory authorities were not going to sit down and take the decision to approve another type of technology unless prompted to do so."

Fitzgerald points out that while the current ban may stop people making calls during flights, it doesn't physically force them to turn their phones off; airlines rely on passengers to comply with their announcements. Reports suggest that an average of 20 people on any one flight leave their mobiles on during the whole journey and, with each phone frantically searching for a signal, there is a risk of interfering not only with the plane's navigation systems, but also with terrestrial mobile networks as they become clogged with phones shouting at the top of their voices.

So far, three airlines (Bmi, Air France and TAP Air Portugal) have signed up to short-haul trials next year using the OnAir system, providing that licences have been granted by then. Air France will use a line-fitted A318 to carry out a six-month trial starting in early 2007, while Bmi and TAP will trial the service on retrofitted Airbus A320/321s later that year. Aeromobile is more cagey about potential airlines using its system but says it has a client "ready to go into commercial operation" as soon as regulatory approval has been given.

Says David Coiley, director of marketing: "We are concentrating our service on the long-haul market for a number of reasons. Firstly, 90 per cent of long-haul aircraft already use Inmarsat satellites in order to navigate, so we will be able to use these same satellites to route our calls to the ground. Secondly, on a long-haul flight, passengers are obviously out of touch for a longer period of time, meaning there is a greater need for mobile phone contact. The key principles of our service are that passengers will be able to use their own phone, on their own calling plan, and will be billed in the normal manner by their usual network provider."

Aeromobile's application for an in-flight mobile phone licence is being processed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on behalf of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and Coiley is confident that approval will be granted within the next five months. At the same time Ofcom has recently published a discussion paper on the introduction of mobile services on aircraft, with the results expected in July.

Says Coiley: "The technology for the use of mobiles in-flight has been around for several years, so this is not the issue. The problem has been packaging the product for the aviation authorities and telecoms regulators in order to gain commercial approval, and we are dovetailing our operations to ensure that our client can go for a full commercial launch as soon as approval has been granted."

Of course the question remains whether passengers really need, or want, the ability to use their mobiles in the air — a recent survey on businesstraveller.com revealed that over 75 per cent of you think it should not be allowed. Satellite phones have been available on some flights for years, but these are for outgoing calls only, and in general are too prohibitively expensive to catch on widely. Initial reports suggest that costs of calls from mobiles in-flight will be comparable to an international roaming call, and with the possibility of SMS text messages and emails to Blackberrys and PDAs, costs are likely to be within reach of the average consumer. Experts estimate the service could be worth £1.4 billion per year by 2009, although this may depend on whether VOIP (voice over internet protocol) calls take off — the advent of wifi access on planes means some passengers are already using this cost-effective method of keeping in touch in the sky.

Cost is not the only issue. Aircrafts are one of the few remaining mobile-free havens, and there will undoubtedly be a backlash from some passengers unhappy at having their in-flight movie disturbed by ringtones and shouts of "I'm on the plane!". Aeromobile says it has conducted extensive research into consumer attitudes and has received positive results — in particular from Middle and Far Eastern passengers, who seem ready to embrace the concept wholeheartedly. European and US passengers are taking more persuading, but Coiley believes the noise effects will be far lower than people might imagine.

"The fact is that ambient noise on an aircraft will drown out much of the noise experienced by neighbouring passengers. And in any case, the technology means that fewer than 10 per cent of passengers will be able to make calls at any one time [due to capacity limitations]. Even on a large aircraft this means only a maximum of around 30 passengers will be using their phones simultaneously. Airlines will also be able to control the system, limiting it for instance to outgoing text messages only during certain periods."

The company plans to run advertising campaigns similar to the Orange ads in cinemas, educating passengers on mobile phone etiquette such as speaking quietly and switching their phones to silent mode.

Whatever the views of passengers, it looks like it's only a matter of time before the use of mobile phones will be allowed at altitude. Time will tell whether the service will be accepted by consumers in the same way that in–flight wifi access appears to be — mobiles will soon be able to whisper in the skies, but let's hope their users learn to do the same.

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