Calling while flying

Expensive and cumbersome in-seat telephones could soon be swept away by new technology that allows passengers to use their own mobile phones while in flight.

  • E-Mail
By  Neil Denslow Published  August 31, 2004

|~||~||~|Commercial aircraft have long been one of the few places on, or just above the earth, where it was possible to escape from the beeping of mobile telephones. However, telecommunications providers are now targeting this last bastion of peace and quiet, and airlines, attracted by the potential service advantage and extra revenue stream, are closely watching developments. A number of different commercial groupings have been formed by companies looking to develop onboard mobile telephone solutions, all of which utilise the Inmarsat satellite network. The big two aviation communications providers, SITA and Arinc, are naturally at the forefront of developments and working on rival products. Arinc has teamed up with Norwegian telco, Telenor Mobile to develop a solution, and it is targeting a first commercial installation in the first quarter of 2006. The company has already passed mobile phone calls over the Inmarsat system — something it will demonstrate at this month’s World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) convention in Seattle — and it plans to have a proof of concept plane in the skies in the second quarter of 2005. SITA, meanwhile, has a majority stake in a new rival joint venture, which also includes Airbus and Tenzing. The latter company will be merged into the new business, which will be officially named at the WAEA event. Like Arinc, the SITA-led venture is working on a solution that will support GSM mobile phones, the type exclusively used in the Middle East and in most of the rest of the world. A third runner in the race, the German aerospace research centre, DLR is also developing a GSM solution, while American wireless technology provider, Qualcomm has demonstrated an inflight solution based on the CDMA standard, which is used in North America and parts of the Far East. However, before passengers are able to make calls onboard an aircraft these solutions will need to clear a number of regulatory hurdles both in the air and on the ground. The most obvious challenge is proving that inflight phone calls are safe and that they will not interfere with the aircraft electronics or the pilot’s communications systems. To prevent interference, the onboard mobile phone systems essentially force mobile phones to power their single down to the lowest level possible. By deploying two or three onboard antennas in the cabin of the plane, the systems ensure that mobile phones don’t broadcast more than a few metres. “It is quite an elegant solution because it does actually inherently provide an answer to some of the cellphone emission problems,” comments David Coiley, Arinc’s director of passenger services. Once the signal reaches the antenna, it is relayed to an onboard server, which then integrates the calls with the onboard satcoms system. From there, the signal is put over the satellite communications network and delivered via a groundstation into the cellphone network. All this takes place with just a 0.5 millisecond delay on the line, which is about the same as when making a mobile phone call on the ground. The invesment needed from the airline is also not especially onerous. Arinc, for instance, predicts that when its solution comes to market it will cost around US $50-100,000 per aircraft to install, as there is no need to upgrade the existing onboard Inmarsat satcom antenna. The technology to achieve all this is already in place and being tested, but gaining the necessary regulatory approvals is a challenge that still needs to be overcome. This regulatory aspect is doubly complex, as the vendors need to satisfy both aviation authorities and the various national telecommunications regulators on the ground. Of the two sets of regulatory authorities, the aviation bodies are likely to be much easier to satisfy. They have already approved onboard wireless local area network (WLAN) systems, such as the Tenzing solution used by Emirates on its Airbus A340-500s, which allow passengers to send e-mails from their laptops. These approvals, along with the work of RTCA special committee 202, which was set up last year at the request of the FAA, have shown that regulators are prepared to certify wireless devices in the cabin. A bigger challenge will be gaining the necessary approvals from the various national telecommunications authorities around the world, which are much more numerous and less closely aligned than the world’s aviation authorities. As aircraft will have a group of GSM frequencies that mobile phones will use within the cabin, the national telecoms regulators will need to be persuaded that these onboard transmissions will not cause interference with the terrestrial mobile phone networks beneath. “Individual national licensing authorities on the ground need to be convinced that these packets of frequencies flying above their airspace will not cause interference with cellular operators on the ground,” explains Dick Smith, Inmarsat’s aeronautical business technical manager. “This can now be proven, because the aircraft GSM cellphones work at a very low power. However each authority over which the aircraft will fly must give its approval, and this could be a lengthy process,” he admits. “But once the service starts, it is expected that regulatory approval will be rapid.” The heavy regulations in the Middle East’s telecoms market, and elsewhere, may also prove to be problematic. This is because national telcos usually have monopolies over GSM usage within their countries’ boundaries from the ground upwards. The Middle East is gradually opening up and allowing new mobile service providers to set up operations on the ground, but the skies are uncharted territory. “This may throw out the ability to guarantee the operation of this system whether it be in the Middle East or elsewhere,” admits Coiley. “We cannot go to any airline and guarantee that we will be able to offer global capability for this service.”||**|||~||~||~|However, in many ways the telcos have good reason to allow the use of onboard GSM phone calls. Not only will inflight services not be in direct competition with their offerings on the ground, but they will also financially benefit from them. This is because inflight mobile phone systems will rely on mobile phone companies for billings — unlike the current in-seat telephones that require credit cards — and so they will be able to draw revenue from this. “There would be a revenue benefit to Etisalat, for instance, and, vitally, Etisalat will still own that customer,” notes Coiley. “We would simply be a new roaming country that Etisalat would agree to roam into and from.” “I doubt that it would be an issue, as in the end, the call has to go through the operator who issued the SIM card, so they will get a piece of the cake,” agrees Samer Halawi, regional director, Inmarsat Middle East. This unified billing will also simplify the process of making calls onboard the plane, as passengers will no longer need to enter in their credit card details. Business travellers will also only need to present one bill when claiming calls back on their expenses. “The end user will be charged through the existing mobile phone channels, not through a new channel,” explains Francesco Violante, managing director of SITA INC. Using their own mobile phone will also be more familiar to passengers than using in-seat ones, which will further encourage them to make calls inflight, but it is the price point that will really drive up adoption. At present, most airlines around the world, with the notable exception of Emirates, charge around US $8 per minute for using in-seat telephones. However, inflight mobile systems should be able to cut this figure to around $3 per minute, which is comparable to international roaming charges on the ground. As such, using mobile phones onboard should be more popular than using in-seat telephones, which have traditionally not been used by more than a very small percentage of passengers. However, the high cost of in-seat telephone calls is not the only reason that passengers have not used them as much as was hoped when then were first launched. “A lot of aeroplanes have [in-seat] telephones and they are generally considered to be a failure,” notes Mike Woodward, regional sales director, Middle East & Europe, Connexion by Boeing. “Part of that is because of the price… but the other part is the social issues: you have to talk extremely loudly to use them and those sitting around you can hear exactly what you are saying,” he comments. This is less of a problem than previously due to a combination of quieter engines, better soundproofing of cabins and enhanced telecoms equipment. However, the sheer proximity of passengers to each other, especially in economy, means that overhearing someone else’s call is all but unavoidable. Furthermore, with the implementation of inflight mobile phone systems, passengers will also be able to receive incoming phone calls, which could lead to a constant peel of phones throughout a flight. This ringing could well annoy other passengers, especially during an overnight flight, which is leading to plans for managing usage. “Airlines are thinking of using the now redundant ‘No Smoking’ signs, and re-labelling them ‘No Phones’,” notes Smith. “They could be illuminated in cabin areas designated as quiet zones, at night, or on landing and take off.” However, while the implementation of inflight mobile phone systems may create some ‘etiquette’ issues, these are unlikely to hold back the spread of such systems. As such, the future of in-seat telephones would seem to be in doubt, as the already low usage figures are likely to fall even further. “It will take some time for them to go out of business, but I think in the future, they could be progressively replaced by these new services,” comments Violante. “There will always be people who continue to use them, but it will cost more and be more difficult to use.” Some airlines on US domestic routes are leading the way and already taking out in-seat phones from their aeroplanes. However, this practice is unlikely to spread quickly because of the fact that most in-seat telephones form an integral part of the inflight entertainment system. As such, most airlines will keep them in place at least until the next time they change their entire IFE system, which rarely happens as such an upgrade usually forms part of a much wider interiors overhaul. The IFE manufacturers contend though, that they also will be able to trump the mobile phone systems providers by upgrading the technology used for in-seat telephone handsets. Thales Avionics’s TopSeries i-5000 system, for instance, which will go into the Airbus A380, allows the use of voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology for telephone calls from the in-seat handset. “Then, if you a voice over IP service provider, you could make a phone call off the aircraft literally for pennies rather than dollars,” comments Brad Foreman, general manager, IFE technical business unit, Thales Avionics. Thus both IFE manufacturers and the two main aviation telecommunications providers are committed to cheaply and audibly connecting aircraft passengers to people on the ground. As such, it seems clear that even being 40,000 feet up in the air will no longer provide a good excuse for not phoning home.||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code