Jacobs and a group of reporters were aboard an American Airlines jetliner Thursday that flew out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for a demonstration of Qualcomms in-flight cellular technology.
The flight required special clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission. The FAA and the airlines ban in-flight cell calls for fear the signals could interfere with navigational equipment. The FCC is worried about them disrupting terrestrial cellular networks.
Reporters were given phones with code division multiple access, or CDMA technology, and a few minutes to make and receive calls. Qualcomm commercialized CDMA technology, a standard used by many top wireless carriers.
Connections from the plane were generally good, although some calls were dropped. Sound quality was about the same as a cell call on the ground, other than the loud background noise on the MD-80 jetliner.
Clearly, this was early stage airborne cell tech.
There was a delay of about one second in voice communications, like that encountered when using a satellite phone, which interfered with natural conversation. The delay was caused by technology that digitally transmits voice in data packets from the airplane to the ground.
Also, the caller could not hear the phone ringing on the other end, which caused at least one reporter to hang up while the person on the other end was shouting into the receiver.
Monte Ford, Americans top technology official, said he called his wife, secretary and friends in Paris and Madrid. He said domestic connections were better than international.
Jacobs said San Diego-based Qualcomm would spend the next two years testing whether electronic signals interfere with the jetliners avionics system. He said improvements in the technology would include shortening the one-second delay. Eventually, air travelers should be able to make calls and download movies with wireless devices aboard jetliners, he said.
A nonprofit aeronautics group, RTCA Inc., is working on guidelines for testing wireless devices aloft. RTCA did not immediately return calls for comment.
The cost of outfitting jetliners for in-flight cell calls would be "minimal," Ford said, but he wouldnt rule out the possibility of the airline charging passengers extra for the calls.
American has ripped seatback phones out of most of its planes. People found the phones expensive and inconvenient, Ford said. "They waited to get on the ground to make calls with their cell phones."
The seatback phones use FAA-approved technology that doesnt interfere with jet navigation systems. And they were expensive. Airlines generally charge about $4 a minute plus a $4 access charge.
Even before Thursday it was widely known that cell phones will sometimes work on jetliners. On Sept. 11, 2001, several passengers aboard hijacked airliners called loved ones.