New in-flight cell phone technology on the horizon

Having already infiltrated cars, buses and trains, cell phones could soon overrun airplanes if technology being separately developed in the U.S. and Europe receives regulatory approval and, equally important, support from the major airlines.

AirCell Inc. has developed an in-flight communication system that will allow passengers to use their own cell phones in the air to call anywhere. Last week the company received a patent for the technology, which it expects to install and demonstrate in aircraft early next year, the Louisville, Colorado, manufacturer said in a statement.

In Europe, a consortium of companies and other organizations is developing a system to connect cell phones and other portable devices in aircraft cabins using several wireless access technologies. The technology could be available as early as 2005.

The consortium, WirelessCabin (www.wirelesscabin.com), is being coordinated by the German aerospace center Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V. (DLR) and consists of a diverse cross-section of companies and organizations, including Airbus Deutschland GmbH, Ericsson Telecomunicazioni SpA, ESYS PLC, Inmarsat Ltd. KID-Systeme GmbH, Siemens AG Austria, TriaGnoSys GmbH and the University of Bradford. The group is being partially funded by the European Union.

Numerous passengers, accustomed to making phone calls or sending e-mail messages from their cars or other forms of mass transportation, are showing growing interest in technology that will also allow them to communicate with their own devices in the air. And some airlines would like to respond to that demand as soon as they can.

"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 Scandinavian Airlines System AB (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."

In April, SAS announced a policy for allowing passengers during flights to use all mobile phone functions, such as 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.

Already The Boeing Co. and Tenzing Communications Inc. have begun to deploy systems that allow passengers to use their notebook computers and other portable computer devices to send and fetch e-mail and surf the Web.

But no company or group has yet to implement technology that will allow travelers to use their own mobile phones to make calls in-flight. That could soon change in the U.S. if AirCell successfully completes rigorous testing of its in-flight communications technology to ensure noninterference with terrestrial cell phone networks and aircraft's communication and navigation systems.

U.S. government agencies have forbidden cell phone calls for a couple of reasons. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for one, restricts calls that may interfere with a plane's navigational instruments. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), for another, prohibits cell phones at 35,000 feet from broadcasting their signals to several towers on the ground at once and thus slowing down the entire network.

AirCell, which not only manufacturers in-flight equipment but also operates a communications network, claims its patented airborne system addresses both issues. The system, including antennas, controls the power emitted by the cell phones to avoid interference with onboard equipment, according to the statement. It also directs the cell phones' signals to the company's own network of 134 base stations covering 95 percent of continental U.S., thus bypassing networks operated by terrestrial mobile operators.

By comparison, Europe's WirelessCabin project seeks to develop an in-flight communication system that not only offers cell phone and wireless IP service but also takes advantage of three different wireless access technologies: 3G (third-generation) mobile broadband, wireless LAN (WLAN) and Bluetooth, according to the project's Web site. At the heart of the project is the development of a Collectively Mobile Heterogeneous Network (CMHN), which supports multiple wireless access technologies.

Whether passengers, especially those squeezed in the economy class with loud kids and crying babies, will want one more irritation on a long flight is another question.

"From a technology perspective, enabling passengers, especially businesspeople, to continue using their cell phones in the air as they are accustomed to on the ground is a great idea," said Sara Harris, an analyst with Strategy Analytics Ltd. "But from a social perspective, the technology could aggravate a lot of passengers who appreciate a break from noisy ring tones and loud voices."

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