Airline seeks way to connect mobile phones onboard

In the Nordic region, where mobile phones already outnumber inhabitants, Scandinavian Airlines System AB (SAS) is on the prowl for technology that will someday allow passengers to use their mobile phones to make calls or send text messages thousands of meters in the sky.

"Passengers, especially our business class travelers, keep asking us when a technology will be available that will let them continue using their mobile handsets in the air as they are accustomed to on the ground," said Ulf Ingnäs, director of in-flight product management at SAS in Stockholm, Sweden. "We keep telling them that there's nothing available yet but we're confident there will be in the near future."

Last week, SAS announced a policy for allowing passengers during flights to use all mobile phone functions, such a calendars, address books and reading e-mail, that require no signal transmission. To do so, passengers require phones equipped with a flight-safe mode, which essentially prevents a handset from sending or receiving signals required to make phone calls.

Nokia Corp. with its 9210i Communicator and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB with its P800 smart phone are among the first manufacturers to offer handsets with the flight-safe feature.

However, both manufacturers, which have close ties to SAS, aren't saying much about technology that would enable passengers to use their mobile phones to make calls in the air.

"I'm not aware that we're working on such a technology," said Damian Stathonikos, a spokesman for Nokia. "And even if I were, I wouldn't say much."

The response from rival Sony Ericsson was much the same. "It's news to me if we're doing anything in this area," said company spokesman Peter Bodor. "But it's certainly an interesting idea."

How to send and receive signals from mobile devices without interfering with aircraft radio gear is one of the challenges. How to beam signals between aircraft and earth is another.

"I could imagine phones being equipped with a frequency band that wouldn't interfere with a plane's radio equipment," said Ingnäs.

That could work for airplanes still on the ground and close to a base station or those equipped with their own mobile switch. But what about planes flying thousands of meters in the sky and far out of range of base stations or over oceans with no base stations at all?

"Terrestrial systems aren't going to work in these circumstances, so some sort of satellite connection will probably be necessary," Stathonikos said. "Cost could be a factor."

Perhaps but not necessarily.

Connexion by Boeing, a unit of The Boeing Co. in Seattle, Washington, is rolling out a satellite-based onboard data communications service, which allows users with wireless LAN (WLAN) cards to send e-mail and surf the Web for around $30 per long-haul flight. The German airlines Lufthansa AG is currently testing the service.

SAS also plans to introduce the service on all of its intercontinental aircraft in 2004.

In theory, the satellite connection linking the Connexion onboard computer could also be used to connect an onboard mobile switch, according to Stathonikos, allowing users to use mobile phones that don't interfere with frequencies reserved for aircraft equipment.

Then again, passengers could use WLAN-equipped notebooks to make VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calls or, even better, use WLAN-enabled handsets, he said, adding that Cisco System Inc. has plans to introduce such a phone.

Cisco already is providing technology for Connexion's onboard 802.11b based wireless network in Lufthansa aircraft flying between Frankfurt and Washington D.C.

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