On hold

Inflight mobile phone services are attracting strong interest from suppliers and airlines, but a host of regulatory issues need to be worked out before passengers can start making calls.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  August 1, 2005

|~||~||~|Inflight mobile telephony provider, OnAir is gearing up for launching services in the latter part of next year. However, the Airbus/SITA joint venture, like its rivals, will have to clear a string of regulatory hurdles before passengers can make mobile phone calls onboard aircraft. Despite the challenges that need to be overcome, service providers and analysts are already predicting that inflight mobile services will generate telephone number-like sales figures. OnAir’s forecast, for instance, says that the global market for onboard communications will be worth US $1.5 billion in 2009, with $1.1 billion of this from voice services and the rest from data. Research company, Booz Allen Hamilton, meanwhile, is even more bullish, predicting that inflight mobile services will be a standard by 2010 and that just within Europe, 100 million passengers will make calls each year. “We expect the total volume of fees for mobile telephony during flights to reach $2.4 billion in Europe alone by 2010,” says Booz Allen principal Dr. Uwe Lambrette. As this untapped sector falls somewhere between aerospace and telephony, it has naturally attracted interest from companies in both of these sectors. The Swedish telecommunications giant, Ericsson, for instance, is working on a GSM solution, which will be available for sale later in the year. Arinc, meanwhile, has teamed up with Norwegian telco, Telenor to form AeroMobile. A prototype of its solution was onboard the Boeing 777-200LR that recently made a world tour. Airbus entered the mobile solutions market last year by forming a joint venture with SITA called OnAir, which also gobbled up inflight e-mail provider, Tenzing. The company is now aiming to launch commercial services next year, once the regulatory hurdles have been cleared. Its technology will then become a standard option on all Airbus aircraft, as well as being available for Boeing aeroplanes and for retrofitting on existing planes. “This technology is about the airlines giving the passengers a choice, allowing them to use their onboard time productively, which then releases their time elsewhere,” says George Cooper, CEO, OnAir. However, before this vision can become a reality, the service providers need to convince both the telecommunications and aviation regulators that inflight mobile phone calls will not interfere with either ground-based telephone networks nor the aircraft’s avionics. This though is a challenging process as neither set of regulators has rules in place covering this technology. Furthermore, airlines could also conceivably need to win approval not just from the telco regulator in the country where their aircraft are registered, but also from the national agencies in each of the countries that their aeroplanes would fly over. The telco regulators need to address the issue of inflight mobile telephony, as if passengers have their phones on in the air, they could create interference in the national mobile phone network. Over a city, for instance, the hundreds of mobile phones onboard a plane could all try to log into potentially hundreds of groundstations beneath, which could overwhelm the network. To prevent this from happening, the inflight solutions include an onboard pico cell, which mobile phones essentially consider to be a groundstation. Because this is so close, the phones can communicate with it while transmitting at their lowest possible strength. The signals from the phones are thus contained within the cabin, which means they pose no threat to the mobile phone network below, nor to the onboard avionics.||**|||~||~||~|“The onboard base station pushes the phone to its minimum output, which prevents interference… This also has the side-effect of increasing the lives of the phones’ batteries, as they are operating on minimum power,” Cooper adds. The core technology needed to do this is already well established and proven in the telecommunications industry, so the difficulties are more on the regulatory side. All markets have their challenges in this regard, with the aviation and telco regulators often pulling in opposite directions. In the USA, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed lifting its ban on inflight mobile phone services in December subject to successful trials. However, even though the FAA has allowed some tests onboard aircraft, it is against giving a blanket approval. Instead, it says that airlines can only use the equipment onboard if they get it certified for each type of plane and also get every different model of mobile phone approved as well. “If an air carrier is willing to take the time and incur the expense of testing and verifying that cell phone usage presents no inflight interference problems, our rules allow an air carrier to permit such devices,” Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety recently told the House of Representatives’ aviation subcommittee. “[However,] there is a substantial challenge with ever-changing phone technology on the one hand, and, on the other, increasingly advanced and complex aircraft technology as the national airspace system moves to satellite navigation,” he added. OnAir is not targeting the US domestic market, as it is only manufacturing a GSM-compatible solution to begin with. (American mobile phone networks use CDMA rather than GSM.) However, it faces similar challenges in getting its solution approved in other countries around the world. To try to shorten this process, the company is firstly working on getting the industry to adopt a ‘horizontal approach’ to regulation, whereby the country where the aircraft is registered approves the equipment rather than each country the plane will fly over. This is consistent with aviation law in general, but regulators are unlikely to approve a solution unless they know it will not cause interference in neighbouring countries. As such, OnAir is aiming to work with regional telco bodies — beginning with the European Committee of Posts and Telegraphs administration (CEPT) — rather than with each national regulator separately, in order to draw up regional frameworks. The CEPT has been chosen as the first regulator, as its framework, which is expected in March, will cover both of the main forms of GSM and it is also likely to greatly influence other regulators around the world. “We need to prove to the national telecoms regulators that it is safe, and because there is both GSM 1800 and 1900 in Western Europe, we have started the process there. It is also a strong regulator that others will follow… Most of the others will make 90% of their decision based on the EU findings,” Cooper adds.||**||

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