Project to Enable Mobile Phone Use on Planes

A European consortium is developing technology that will allow passengers to use mobile phones on airplanes.

In one of the first major projects of its kind, a European Commission-funded consortium is preparing to trial a system designed to allow mobile phone use inside a passenger aircraft.

Unlike Boeings data-based Connexion system, which airlines in Germany, Scandinavia and Asia are in the process of rolling out, the technology developed by WirelessCabin allows the use of standard mobile phones as well as wireless data devices. WirelessCabin is planning to run a demonstration of the system this summer, using a long-haul A340-600 aircraft, and said planes could be outfitted as soon as this year.

WirelessCabin is one of several initiatives bringing data connectivity to public places, spurred by the growing ubiquity of wireless-equipped laptops and PDAs. Public hotspots are making Wi-Fi available in coffee shops, airport lounges, McDonalds restaurants and European rail networks. Airbus-backed Tenzing Communications makes a slower on-board data system. Some industry observers are skeptical that hotspots can be profitable, but airplanes—with their captive population desperate for diversions—may be an exception.

The WirelessCabin project, spearheaded by engineers who earlier worked on one of the first high-speed satellite data links for aircraft, is part of broader EC activity around wireless broadband. The WirelessCabin consortium is headed by the German Aerospace Centre, with other partners including Siemens, Ericsson and Airbus, Boeings main competitor in the manufacture of aircraft.

Allowing mobile phones to operate on planes is more complicated than setting up a data system, but not because of interference with the planes avionics systems; in fact, phones are banned from flights because they interfere with terrestrial base stations. Another technical hitch is that to communicate with base stations on the ground, phones must transmit at their maximum power, which can cause interference with other devices in the cabin.

WirelessCabins system gets around both problems by installing a short-range "picocell" in the plane itself. Handsets link to the nearby cell, preventing interference outside the plane; the cell also includes a power-limiting mechanism that forces the handsets to transmit at one-thousandth of their usual output.

But this solution brings with it another problem: licensing. Unlike the spectrum used by Wi-Fi, mobile phone transceivers can only operate under a government license, meaning an airline must either become a carrier itself—which would be next to impossible, according to WirelessCabin—or partner with an existing network provider.

"Fortunately, all the operators are convinced—at least in Germany—that aircraft are a big market for them," said WirelessCabin engineer Matthias Holzbock.

The system uses a satellite link to connect the plane with either the standard telephone network or the Internet. Holzbock said WirelessCabin will initially use GSM, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections, but is planning to add U.S. wireless standards such as CDMA, as well as 3G standards. The consortium is already making a picocell using CDMA2000.

"The power management is even better with new technologies such as UMTS and CDMA2000 systems—they transmit at even lower power than GSM," Holzbock said.

WirelessCabin can work with any satellite uplink, meaning its mobile phone capabilities could easily be added on to Connexions Wi-Fi offering, Holzbock said. He said flights of more than six hours may prove to be the best market for broadband, while mobile phone connectivity might be best targeted at short-haul flights.

The consortium is planning trials with Lufthansa, which has been the most aggressive in rolling out Connexion. Lufthansa is equipping six aircraft with Connexion equipment, and is planning to go live with the service later this month. Singapore Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), Japan Airlines, All-Nippon Airways and China Airlines are all planning Connexion services in the second half of this year or early next year.

Connexions pricing, announced late last month, puts unlimited Wi-Fi access at $29.95 for flights longer than six hours; $19.95 for flights between three and six hours; and $14.95 for flights less than three hours. Connectivity can be purchased on a metered basis for $9.95 for the first 30 minutes and 25 cents for each additional minute. Airlines are considering an option to pay for connectivity with frequent-flyer miles, Boeing has said.

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