Expanding Cell Phones Reach Can Be a Lifesaver

Opinion: Yes, train passengers yakking away can be a disturbance. But when emergencies happen, will you still consider such connectivity a nuisance?

Are mobile phones in planes controversial? Apparently not. But phones on the Underground? Unthinkable!

Considering all of the rude names people have called me in the past three years, I was vexed to be rejected by breakfast television this week—at the last minute—as an insufficiently exciting candidate for a place on the famous GMTV sofa.

Ive been running interference for campaigners for liberalization for a while now. Finally, the world is moving on, slowly but definitely. But the battle is still not won.

And there are aspects of it that need to be discussed. Is it really OK to have areas where mobile phones dont, and cant, work?

Over in America, we learn, Congress is debating this issue fiercely. All of the hoary old anxieties are being rehearsed: "Terrorists could dial a mobile phone in the hold, and trigger a bomb!" As if thats the only sort of wireless signal that would penetrate, or as if the invention of the phone had rendered the pressure-triggered detonator inoperative.

And of course, the perennial complaint: "Itll be a nuisance."

Meanwhile over here in Europe, its a done deal. Planes will be flying this time next year, according to the founder of OnAir (a joint venture by SITA and Airbus). He has reasonable hopes of seeing his Internet-based VOIP system on local flights—on a test basis, at least—before summer.

Nonetheless, theres controversy, even here, about the desirability of it. Not enough controversy that the breakfast TV station wanted to discuss it, but nonetheless, theres a significant group of people who, as soon as you try to propose expanding the reach of the mobile phone, raise their thumb to their ear, their pinky to their mouth, and bray: "Im on the train!" and then proceed to laugh themselves stupid.

One of Britains better-known comics is responsible. In a sketch that caught on, he satirized the conversations passengers have with their loved ones when calling to explain why theyre late. They always start with that phrase, because (duh) the caller has been asked where they are calling from.

For everybody else on the train, its a statement of the blindingly obvious, and very funny. For the person who has been wondering whether you were caught up in this weeks bomb blasts, its not at all amusing. And it is, in my opinion, a scandal that theres a part of London—where 200,000 people live—where you cant place an emergency 999 (911 to you!) call.

In the recent London outrages, victims of the blasts were ignored for 20 minutes after the explosions.

The reason: The detonations caused a huge power surge, which engineers at the rail network operators headquarters noticed. They assumed (why not?) that the surge was electrical in origin. Not until staff trapped underground managed to activate their equipment did the message percolate through to management that there were bombs.

During that 20-minute hiatus, the people on the trains could not phone home. London Underground, like many older metro underground railways, doesnt have a wireless Internet feed.

And if you suggest it, people respond: "Im on the train! Hahahaha!" and collapse in admiration of their own wit—instead of thinking of the situations where an emergency phone isnt just rather a nice idea, but a life-saver.

Of course, a mobile phone can be used to trigger a bomb. It also can be a perishing nuisance! Especially when its user doesnt manage to remember where he or she is, and starts braying loudly while standing in a room full of people quietly trying to read, or watch the cinema.

But surely we know by now that technology has downsides and upsides, and that the fact is, mobile phones are an absolute life-saver.

And the idea that the noise of phones ringing or people talking on planes is such a nuisance that the phones should be banned has to be the most remarkable idiocy ever. Have these congressional prats not flown in an aircraft with jet engines? You can barely hear the person next to you speak when youre trying to hear them—those engines are more than just audible.

But in a move reminiscent of the legendary man with a flag, who was legislatively required to walk in front of horseless carriages in England a hundred years ago, OnAir has bowed to the Luddites.

When OnAir phone systems go live in Europes planes next year, the Siemens-built picocell will be managed by the flight crew, and when the blinds come down and the movie starts, the cell will disable voice calls, allowing only browsing and text SMS (Short Message Service) messages.

I dont know how to explain this to the Luddites, so I dont raise the issue. But the satellite link to a plane isnt exclusively a phone link, but actually a full-scale Inmarsat satellite Internet supply. The same feed that puts the picocell onto the Internet will connect passengers via Wi-Fi to do browsing.

Of course, none of them would dream of putting a headset on and connecting via Skype to their friends. So, I wont tell the congressional grouches, and Ill miss my slot on the morning TV show, and the progress of technology will roll on uninterrupted. Yes, its a sacrifice of my career for the Greater Good.

Im a hero, can you tell?

Contributing columnist Guy Kewney has been irritating the complacent in high tech since 1974. Previously with PC Mag UK and ZDNet UK, Guy helped found InfoWorld, Personal Computer World, MicroScope, PC Dealer, AFAICS Research and NewsWireless. And he only commits one blog—forgiveable, surely? He can be reached at gkewney@yahoo.com.


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