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CONNECTED COMMENT (30/08/05)

 

MOBILES JOIN THE MILE HIGH CLUB

 

You know the drill. ‘Please put your tray tables and seatbacks in the upright position and make sure that mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the flight…’ Commercial aircraft are one of the few places left on earth, or rather above it, where you won’t be distracted by cheesy ringtones and half overheard conversations, but maybe not for much longer.

 

Assuming the few remaining technical and legislative hurdles are overcome you should soon be able to use your mobile to make and take calls at 30,000 feet. You can already surf the web and send and receive emails on your Wi-Fi equipped laptop or PDA on a number of long-haul flights. But hang on, what about all those stern warnings, about electronic devices interfering with sensitive aircraft instruments?

 

Planes haven’t suddenly got any safer, truth be known on many flights at least one person accidentally leaves their mobile phone switched on but the aircraft doesn’t fall out of the sky or get lost. In fact the real problem is down on the ground. An airborne mobile phone has the potential to be within range of scores, possibly hundreds of mobile phone base stations or ‘cells’, particularly over densely populated areas and it would only take a few chatters and texters on a handful of aircraft to jam a city’s phone network.

 

One solution is to stop the mobile phone signals getting out of the aircraft in the first place. Plane maker Airbus, in collaboration with Siemens is working on ways to provide passengers with an in-flight mobile phone service by installing a ‘picocell’ and using the aircraft’s satellite data link to patch calls through to ground-based networks. The picocell stops cell phones inside the cabin attempting to log on to base station on the ground by automatically reducing their transmission power. Needless to say it will also provide aircraft operators with another moneymaking opportunity with higher rate call charges. Even so it should still be a lot cheaper than the scarily expensive seatback and armrest phones installed in many of today’s aircraft.

 

The Airbus mobile phone network is expected to be operational next year. A rival service now being developed by Boeing should follow soon after, though surveys conducted by the company predict that some passenger resistance can be expected to loud and annoying voice calls in the close confines of an aircraft cabin.

 

Airborne broadband is already with us and Boeing Connexion is now, or is about to be installed by a number of operators including ANA, Asiana, Singapore Airlines, China Airlines, JAL, Korean Airlines, Lufthansa and SAS with Australian Airlines and El Al soon to join their ranks.

 

Connexion uses a high-speed satellite data link to provide passengers with broadband, comparable with terrestrial DSL services. It will be available to everyone onboard and connection speeds are currently in the region of 5Mb (downstream to the Internet is around 1Mb), with the potential to reach 20Mb.

 

It works in much the same way as subscription-based wireless ‘hotspots’ on the ground with Wi-Fi Access points installed at strategic points throughout the cabins. Products from a number of manufacturers are now going through a rigorous certification process. On broadband equipped aircraft registered users simply log on and pay for their connection on a sliding scale of charges. Surfing your way through a flight lasting up to 3 hours will set you back around $15. A 6-hour flights costs $20 and longer journeys work out at $30. Online time can also be purchased by the minute or in blocks.

 

The technology open up all sorts of possibilities including alternative entertainment and interactive services. Flight attendant call buttons could become redundant; in the future when you fancy a top-up just send them an email. The big question, though, is whether or not cabin crews will receive any extra training in configuring and troubleshooting wireless connections...

 

There’s no escape for those who prefer a more leisurely or exotic modes of transport and there will soon be an opportunity to surf while you cruise. Boeing Maritime is currently kitting out 50 vessels belonging to Teekay Shipping with Connexion systems. And no doubt Sir Richard Branson is eyeing up the potential for passengers to send emails messages and make phone calls from low earth orbit when Virgin Galactica takes to the skies in 2007…

 

rick.maybury@gmail.com

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2005 2108

 

 

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