In-flight cell phones will be a reality by 2006 or 2007, according to partners in OnAir, the name of a new service introduced on Wednesday, at the World Airline Entertainment Associations annual conference and exhibition in Seattle. The effort comes from an as-yet unnamed company formed by Airbus SAS, telecommunications vendor SITA Inc., and inflight communications software maker Tenzing Communications Inc.
Amazing to some in the industry, the OnAir gear will be very little more complex than a simple GSM or CDMA or WCDMA picocell on board the aircraft. According to Airbus, after completing proving flights last week, most of the work to be done from here on will be productizing and certification.
According to Airbus Special Projects Director, Philippe Chenevier, what they have proved is that ordinary cell phones can be safely used on board aircraft, providing simple steps are taking to restrict their transmit power.
However, even more surprising, the OnAir service will not be restricted to Airbus aircraft.
“We will announce that the project will go on; and that it is not restricted to Airbus,” said Chenevier. “Theres a need to demonstrate that it will work on other aircraft … that we take measures to prevent interference, and we can demonstrate them,” he said.
OnAirs “measures” are mostly to control the power emission of the phones. The trials were made on European standard GSM phones, which radiate with variably power up to a maximum 2 Watts; but they only very rarely work at that peak power. The network adjusts, and tells the phone to adjust to the minimum needed for the cell to hear it, so as to preserve batteries. It also prevents the phone from reaching other adjacent cells.
“Our picocell on the plane lowers the phones to the lowest possible; which is one milliwatt, or a 2,000th of the full power,” Chenevier said to eWEEK.com.
The intention to form the joint venture between SITA, Airbus and Tenzing was announced back in August at the Farnborough Air Show in the United Kingdom, and Wednesdays announcement is of its branding, production and testing schedules, plus its marketing launch.
The aim of the OnAir venture is “to provide a service to the passenger which is substantially similar to what they experience when traveling.”
Initially, the picocell will initially be a European standard one, using the 1,800MHz band.
The consortium considers that this will be what American travelers expect to find when they get into an aircraft.
“Americans dont expect their normal CDMA phones or their U.S. standard GSM phones to work in Europe,” said Chenevier, “and so they would expect to have to take an 1,800MHz dual-band handset on the journey, as normal.”
Pricing, said the consortium joint venture, will be again kept low—or at least, as low as travelers currently expect under normal roaming agreements.
There are other technical details to be resolved, still. The key one is a “jamming” mechanism, which will contravene regulatory standards at present.
The problem OnAir faces is what to do with a phone which doesnt have roaming enabled. Such a phone will try to register itself with the aircrafts picocell, and be rejected. It would then search for another service providers antenna, and normally, would be able to pick up the (far weaker) signals of other ground-based cells. To prevent this, a very low-level “noise” signal will be generated in the aircraft, blanketing the remote cells.
“It involves some serious work on the regulatory side,” said Chenevier “But that has been recognized as a needed thing, that has to be looked at and discussed with the authorities and the operators of each country.” It is part of the reason the new company doesnt expect to be able to announce product in service until 2006.
The other reason for the delay is that the equipment has to be productized and price-reduced so that aircraft can afford to carry the picocells. This means making them small and light, and very easily installable.
“There will be no changes to the aircraft, no; this is the purpose; it must go on existing aircraft, not just new ones. So we want to minimize what has to be done to the aircraft; our system is a kit with the necessary hardware and antennae and so on,” explained Chenevier.
Other wireless plans will be announced in due course. Some of them will be derived from the already-announced Wireless Cabin research project, to which Airbus Industries was a contributor, and will include Wi-Fi data.
Backhaul will be in the hands of satellite specialist I Care Link, which will route packets through the Globalstar satellite network.
Meanwhile, no official interviewed was prepared to be drawn on whether this project proved, or disproved, the value of the current blanket ban on cell phone usage in aircraft.