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In-Flight Cell-Phone Use Closer To Technical Feasibility

Qualcomm and Connexion, the Boeing unit that sells a system for in-flight Internet connectivity, have successfully tested cell-phone standards on a Boeing 737, and others are working on similar initiatives.

As the debate about whether to allow cell-phone use on airplanes rages on, technology providers continue to make progress on systems that will enable in-air conversations in the near future as airlines brace for the eventuality of in-flight phone use.

Last week, Qualcomm Inc. and Connexion, the Boeing Co. unit that sells a system for in-flight Internet connectivity, successfully tested cell-phone standards on a Boeing 737 by using a small in-cabin cellular base station called a "pico cell" to connect the signal to an air-to-ground satellite link. Another company called OnAir, which is a joint venture of Boeing rival Airbus S.A.S. and airline software provider Sita Inc., has been working on a similar system for in-flight cell-phone voice service and expects the first Airbus A320 aircraft equipped with the technology to be offering service in western Europe by mid-2006. A third service called AeroMobile, the result of a partnership between transportation communications systems provider Arinc Inc. and Norwegian telco Telenor ASA, is scheduled to launch later this year.

On the regulatory front, the Federal Communications Commission is considering proposals--and accepting public comment--on the in-flight use of cell phones, and it has proposed allowing calls during flights only if the signals sent by phones are minimized by the use of a pico cell, and if they don't interfere with on-ground cell-phone users. The FCC has not set a time frame for any action. Meanwhile, a Federal Aviation Administration official told Congress last month that the agency will not lift its 14-year-old ban on in-flight cell phone use unless carriers can prove that the devices don't disrupt on-board navigation and communication equipment. It's a daunting obstacle, as airlines will be forced to test every model of cell phone on each aircraft they fly.

Whether the flying public wants cell-phone use allowed on flights remains unclear. A poll conducted this spring on behalf of the National Consumer League and a flight attendants' association found that 69% of passengers wanted to keep cell-phone restrictions in place. Several months earlier, Telenor and Arinc surveyed 1,200 business travelers and found that about half of them would select airlines that allow in-flight cell-phone use over those that don't. But reader response to an InformationWeek blog posting in April indicated overwhelming opposition to lifting in-flight cell-phone restrictions.

The issue isn't causing airline CIOs to scurry, as on-board communications don't typically fall under their purview. But Bob Reeder, CIO of Alaska Airlines, believes the inherent delays in relaying signals among aircraft, satellites, and ground systems would conspire to keep in-air conversations to a minimum. "If you really need to make a call, it wouldn't bother you, but just to sit there and talk to Aunt Mary while you're crossing the United States, no one would want to do that," Reeder says.

He says the jury is still out as to whether Alaska would jump quickly to invest in the equipment required to make cell-phone service possible, but he believes that the pending arrival of in-flight broadband Internet connectivity, which would allow rapid communications via E-mail and instant messaging, will often alleviate the need for a phone conversation.

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