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5/14/2012
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Virgin Atlantic Debuts In-Flight Cellphone Service

Passengers on Virgin Atlantic flights between New York and London can place calls and send text messages.

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Can't go six or seven hours without making a phone call? Lucky for you, Virgin Atlantic is launching a service this month that will help ease your disconnection anxiety. Its new AeroMobile service will let passengers aboard select aircraft make phone calls and send text messages from their cellphones during flight.

The service will first be available on Virgin's Airbus A330 planes flying the London-to-New York route, though Virgin Atlantic says it will expand to 10 routes by the end of the year. AeroMobile creates a small cellular network within the aircraft that manages the onboard connection. The plane then bounces the necessary signals to satellites, which in turn communicate with networks on the ground.

By creating a cellular network within the plane, it means cellphones will operate at the low end of their power range because of the proximity of the cell. In other words, it is safe to operate and use the service. Typically, cellphones that are switched on during flight ramp up their radio output trying to reach the ground-based cellular networks. This is what may interfere with cockpit instrumentation.

[ Stay safe while traveling. See 9 Tips To Block Hotel Wi-Fi Malware. ]

Using cellphones during takeoff and landing will still be prohibited. Virgin's flight crew will alert passengers when it is safe to use their phones to make calls. Be aware, however, that it is currently illegal to make cellular calls from airplanes in U.S. air space. The service won't be available on Virgin's planes until Virgin flights departing New York are 250 miles from official U.S. airspace. On flights headed from London to New York, the service will automatically cut off at the appropriate distance from the United States. Virgin didn't say if it will provide a warning ahead of the cutoff. (Some U.S. airlines offer Web access during flight.)

According to Virgin, AeroMobile will be available to any cellphone that is enabled for international roaming. Voice calls and text messages will work, and Virgin says that BlackBerrys will be able to receive/send email. Virgin recommends that other devices, however, keep their data roaming set to "off" in order to avoid exorbitant data roaming fees. (BlackBerrys are much more efficient than other platforms when it comes to handling data.)

If you're worried about cost, you should be. Virgin says that the service will cost the same as any other international roaming voice call. Many international calls start at about $1.29 - $1.49 per minute and go up dramatically, depending on which country and which type of phone (landline versus mobile) is being called.

All the charges will be sent back to the callers' wireless bill at the end of the month, which means you won't know how much you've spent making calls from the plane until long after you return from the trip.

Of course, this all assumes that you are OK with the idea of making voice calls from airplanes.

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