Mobile in the sky

One of the bonuses of travelling by air – at least for the moment – is communications 'downtime'. As soon as passengers are on board, the cacophony of mobile phone calls stops, silenced by airline industry safety concerns and regulatory issues.

But that looks certain to change as the in-flight mobile phone lobby gains momentum. They are confident that any technological issues have been overcome; the only task now is convincing the public and regulatory bodies that in-flight calls are desirable and safe.

The consensus from interested parties, such as airlines and mobile providers, is that the technology needed to provide mile-high mobile telephony does not differ substantially from that needed to provide it on the ground. "We don't believe the technology's a problem," says Dave Tharp, on-board media development manager for Virgin Atlantic. "It's the social and political issues that have to be negotiated. As many people want it as don't, and there are an awful lot in the middle," he says.

One idea gaining popularity is to designate certain parts of the plane as 'communications zones', where the disruption and annoyance caused by passengers bellowing to be heard above the background noise from jet engines is minimised. However, a recent IDC study of 50,000 American passengers found only 11% were in favour of phone use irrespective of the area of the plane. Conversely, 64% of the respondents approved of passengers being able to use their phones for quieter services such as text and email.

Clearly, though, some authorities do have concerns about safety. Research undertaken in 2003 by the Civil Aviation Authority found mobile usage, once the engines had started, could "adversely affect navigation and communication functions, producing significant errors on instrument displays and background noise on audio outputs". It cited pilots' observations on the impact of on-board mobile telephone use that pointed to interrupted communications due to noise in the crew's headphones, false notification of unsafe conditions and distractions to the crew from their normal duties due to the fact they were more likely to invoke emergency drills. In the US, the Association of Flight Attendants opposes the end of the ban on mobiles for the same reasons.

Recently, safety concerns of a different kind have been voiced. Representatives from the US Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security told a House of Representatives subcommittee that allowing mobile use on planes could facilitate terrorism by allowing bombs to be set off remotely. Although anyone determined enough to set off a bomb would presumably be unlikely to turn their phone off simply because the cabin crew asked them to, it is an illustration of just how many facets there are to this issue.

Meanwhile the potential for providing mobile access is building steadily. Global satellite network owner Inmarsat has recently launched next-generation I-4 satellites to expand bandwidth and coverage across the Indian Ocean. It thinks there is massive potential in providing Internet and mobile phone services to passengers on commercial airlines. Inmarsat's avionics are already installed on some 70% of long-haul wide-bodied aircraft, yet on most only a small amount of the available capacity is used. Clearly Inmarsat believes if there is a way of allowing passengers to make calls from their own phones, this excess capacity could be constructively utilised.

The plane manufacturers too are stepping up their drive towards mobile services. Boeing, with its Connexion service, already provides WiFi Internet access to on-board laptop users on around 70 planes operated by Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and a few others. Its rival, Airbus, is part of the OnAir consortium, supported by SITA, the common services provider to the air travel industry, and Tenzing, which provides Internet and email technology to airlines. SITA estimates that by 2009 the market for in-flight mobile services will be worth $1.6 billion. Airbus aims to enable mobile calls on its planes by 2006.

Although technology does not appear to be much of a barrier (a 'pico cell' can easily be installed on an aircraft to act as a local ground station) regulatory bodies still have to be convinced. As Virgin Atlantic's Tharp explains: "Standards are going to have to be laid down – the regulatory authorities like the BAA and FAA [British Airports Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration in the US] will decide on safety matters. There are also very powerful telecoms players, like Vodafone and AT&T, who have no intention in letting their brand be affected by safety concerns on board planes. As airlines we have to take both of these into account."

OnAir favours what it calls the 'horizontal approach' to certification, with laws covering the use of mobiles set by the country where the plane is registered.

"As well as being consistent with the aviation law position generally, the advantage of this approach is that one only needs a licence from one country for each airline's aircraft," says Andrew Charlton, OnAir's head of regulatory affairs. Regulators could then work together to ensure the planes do not interfere with terrestrial operators.

Alternatively, airlines could obtain GSM spectrum from all the countries they fly over. This means that they could not provide a service before all relevant countries had fully agreed and cross-national inconsistencies ironed out.

Despite the alternatives, plenty of questions still remain about adoption. Passengers have had back-of-the-seat 'Airfone' services available for several years, but have shied away from using these because of the cost ($100 plus per hour) and consideration for other passengers. Early reports on calls made over on-board Internet connections using voice-over-IP links such as Skype from laptops have suggested these are highly intrusive for other passengers. But the turning point will come when mobile phone usage is authorised – and that seems to be only a matter of time.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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