Scaling new heights

Dubai based airline Emirates became the first carrier to offer inflight mobile services last March. With other airlines and mobile operators running tests, the service is widely expected to move into the mainstream and become a normal part of the flying experience.

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By  Administrator Published  June 25, 2008

Dubai based airline Emirates became the first carrier to offer inflight mobile services last March. With other airlines and mobile operators running tests, the service is widely expected to move into the mainstream and become a normal part of the flying experience.

Samer Halawi, vice president of Inmarsat's operations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, tells CommsMEA how technology from his company made in-flight roaming a reality, and how he thinks the sector will develop.

The introduction of mobile roaming in flights has attracted much media attention. How do you see the service developing?

Emirates Airlines recently completed the first commercial phone call using GSM on an aircraft and they want to deploy that throughout their fleet. Other companies have also joined the bandwagon and are set to deploy the technology.

You also find cellular operators who are joining the fray by finding cellular roaming agreements in order for their subscribers to be able to use services on board aircrafts that are fitted with the technology. The common thing for everybody is the Inmarsat technology, which makes the service possible.

Our Swift Broadband technology is what enables the airlines to offer this service. The in flight mobile service is a GSM technology, but the signal is relayed from the aircraft to the ground using Inmarsat satellites and technology.

How does the technology work?

Basically, there is a picocell in the aeroplane, which is something like a miniature base station. Being inside the aeroplane, the power that the phone needs to transmit in order to connect to that base station is very low, which guarantees the safety of having mobile phones operating in the airplane.

When somebody makes a call, their phone connects to the picocell, and then the picocell connects to the ground network through the Inmarsat satellite. There are several service providers and manufacturers for the hardware, but all of the airtime goes through Inmarsat.

How does Inmarsat work with mobile operators and airlines to make this service a reality?

Inmarsat works closely with both OnAir and AeroMobile, who deliver the solutions to the airline community. At a simple level these solutions require an on-board GSM component, a satellite component and a ground interconnect component where the traffic is routed into the GSM network.

Inmarsat's responsibility is for the satellite component.

In order to connect with the GSM networks OnAir uses Monaco Telecom and AeroMobile uses Telenor; both GSM partners are members of the GSM association and are responsible for their inter-operator agreements.

Are there any potential barriers to growth?

There may be limitations based on the breadth of other connectivity solutions offered concurrently on the aircraft and the number of channels available to an aircraft.

There may also be limitations depending on how many roaming agreements are in place with the home GSM operators and there are challenges in terms of fitting aircraft with this equipment because it is costly and there is some downtime with the aircraft as well.

Having said that, we are working with Boeing and Airbus so that we will be able to allow airlines to ask for the technology as an option when they order new planes, so they won't have to incur any downtime.

How many people could use roaming services on board a flight at one time?

The answer is really "it depends". The factors which impact the maximum number are: the service used - ie Inmarsat's previous generation aero services or the new SwiftBroadband service, - the modem used, the maturity of the solution, the capacity of the picocell and the number of picocells.

In a mature set-up with a single picocell the usual number quoted is a maximum of 12 simultaneous calls. Of course larger aircraft can accommodate more than one picocell. To obtain exact numbers it is best to speak to the two GSM solution partners - OnAir and AeroMobile.

What do you think the service will be used for mainly - voice or data?

You will see a lot of take up in SMS use and Blackberry type devices more than voice, because that can be done silently without interfering with other passengers.

People should be able to access the internet through the technology, but it depends on what the individual airlines are offering and how far they are taking their services. Swift Broadband offers 432kb of data capability, and that is more than enough to browse the internet for several users at the same time.

3790 days ago
Mark Snedecor

Business travelers and others want to make calls during flight, and airlines and wireless companies want to make revenue from this service, but most people onboard don’t want to be bothered by people yapping while they fly. So, why not have the airlines pass a rule that says you can use your cell phone during fight, but only if you use a Conversation Privatizer like device? See www.ZipItInc.com. This makes a Win-Win-Win situation for ALL!

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