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.
Telefonaktiebolaget LM 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
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.
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 Inc. and Norwegian carrier Telenor ASA, 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.
Bob Egan, an analyst at Mobile Competency, in Providence, Rhode Island, isn't so
"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.