Web & communication software

Aircell Unveils In-flight Smartphone, Voice Service

Aircell will introduce a mobile voice service for business aircraft and a smartphone specially designed for in-flight use late this year, the company said Wednesday.

Though the upcoming offerings will not be made available on airliners, the move may signal a pent-up desire by executives to whip out their cell phones and start making calls in the air. The voice service and handset will be offered as options on Aircell's Gogo Biz service, the business-plane counterpart to its Gogo Wi-Fi offering for commercial jets.

The Android-based device, called simply the Aircell Smartphone, was designed specifically for in-flight use. It's not Aircell's first phone: The company already sells the Aircell Axxess handset, and the Smartphone is designed as a drop-in replacement for that unit. It has a 3.8-inch touchscreen but is taller than a typical smartphone because it has a full-size keypad below the touchscreen.

The phone can be used in wired or wireless mode. It is equipped with Bluetooth as well as a jack for wired headsets. The interface is designed for ease of use, and Aircell boasts that it can be used without reading a manual.

The phone is set to start shipping late this year, and pricing will be announced closer to that time, according to Aircell.

Aircell said it adopted Android for the phone for future flexibility and to gain access to the more than 100,000 applications available for it. It's a step away from a more proprietary set of technologies used in the Axxess system, which offers both corded and cordless handsets as well as Wi-Fi but uses the fairly low-bandwidth Iridium satellite network. Aircell says it has deployed equipment for the Gogo Biz service in more than 1,000 aircraft since it was launched about 18 months ago.

The Gogo Biz Voice service, also coming late this year, is designed to offer better voice call quality than any other aircraft-based phone system, along with Internet access similar to ground-based cellular service. It will allow several simultaneous voice calls and data sessions, the company said.

Aircell is the dominant provider of in-flight Internet access in the U.S. Both Gogo Biz and the Gogo service for commercial airlines connect to the Internet via the Aircell Network, which consists of 3G EV-DO Revision A towers on the ground that are dedicated to serving planes. By next year, the company plans to upgrade its network to EV-DO Revision B, in a move it says will bring about four times as much bandwidth. It also plans to adopt satellite technology for service outside the U.S.

The Gogo Wi-Fi service on airliners technically could be used for voice over IP calls, but no U.S. airline allows that use and Aircell can build in mechanisms for them to block those applications.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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