Cell Phones Get An In-Flight Lift

Qualcomm and Boeing successfully test cell-phone usage on a 737, but the FAA says ban will remain in place for now
As the debate about whether to allow cell-phone use on airplanes rages on, technology providers are making progress on systems that will enable in-air conversations.

Last week, Qualcomm Inc. and Connexion, the Boeing Co. unit that sells a system for in-flight Internet connectivity, successfully tested cell-phone service on a Boeing 737 by using an in-cabin cellular base station called a "pico cell" to connect the signal to an air-to-ground satellite link.

OnAir, 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 service and expects the first Airbus A320 aircraft equipped with the technology to offer service in western Europe by mid-2006. And AeroMobile, the result of a partnership between transportation communications systems provider Arinc Inc. and Norwegian phone company Telenor ASA, is scheduled to launch later this year.

On the regulatory front, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed allowing calls during flights only if the phone signals are minimized by the use of a pico cell and if they don't interfere with on-ground cell-phone users. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration told Congress last month it won't lift its 14-year-old ban on in-flight cell-phone use except when carriers can prove the devices don't disrupt on-board navigation and communication equipment.

The issue isn't causing airline CIOs to scurry, as on-board communications don't typically fall under their purview. But Alaska Airlines CIO Bob Reeder believes the inherent delays in relaying signals among aircraft, satellites, and ground systems will 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.

Alaska Airlines hasn't decided to invest in the equipment required to make cell-phone service possible, but Reeder says the forthcoming 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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