Coming Soon: Cell Phones in Flight?

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European aircraft manufacturer Airbus plans to include in its new Superjumbo A380 planes an optional voice and data system that can allow passengers to use their mobile devices in flight, the company says.

The service, including onboard mobile telephony and Internet access for passengers, will be offered through the OnAir joint venture to airline companies purchasing the A380. The system could be fitted on other models from Airbus as well as on planes from U.S. rival Boeing, OnAir says.

OnAir, in Geneva, was created last year by Airbus with Dutch airline IT services provider SITA and Tenzing Communications, which sells products to enable in-flight e-mail and SMS (short message service). The European Union's Directorate General for Competition approved the joint venture on January 27 and the companies incorporated OnAir February 1. OnAir has 50 employees, most of whom are based in Seattle, where Tenzig is also located.

Put to the Test

Airbus last year successfully completed an in-flight trial of mobile phones and infrastructure equipment based on GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) technology using an Airbus A320 flight-test plane. Tested services included GSM telephony, Web browsing, e-mail, and connectivity to a VPN. The trial, announced last September, also tested several wireless computing services, such as 3G; WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) technology; WLAN using the Wi-Fi standard 802.11; and short-range Bluetooth.

As part of the agreement announced this week between Airbus and OnAir, the companies have begun the development phase of the system and are in the process of selecting suppliers for the different service components. The service should become commercially available in 2006, Airbus and OnAir say.

Airbus, in Blagnac Cedex, France, is planning to launch the 555-passenger A380 plane in 2006.

No airline has committed to installing the OnAir system, according to George Cooper, OnAir's chief executive officer, who spoke this week on a Web cast news conference. He added that airlines in Europe, the U.S., and Asia have already expressed interest in the OnAir services, though he declined to give any company names.

Cooper says that OnAir is committed to creating a system that allows airlines to offer an affordable service to its passengers while in the air. "The price you pay should be no more than standard roaming charge in Europe," he says.

Cause for Concern?

Cooper also acknowledged the concern of some passengers that fights, particularly long-haul journeys, may be disrupted if other passengers are able to use their cell phones. "We continue to research these issues," Cooper says, "but, in anticipation of such a need, our system will give cabin crew complete control of the system, allowing them, for example, to switch to SMS-only mode when it is 'night' in the cabin."

But before passengers can begin using their mobile phones in the air, OnAir will need approval from European telecommunications regulators as well as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Airbus says it believes it is close to obtaining the green light in Europe.

Separately this week, the FCC announced a proposal in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration to relax its current ban on cellular telephone use in airborne aircraft. The FCC says it is seeking public comment on what spectrum bands should be included in the proposal, as well as on ways that the 800-MHz cellular spectrum could be used to provide a communications link between airborne aircraft and the ground.

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