Dubai Air Show

On board cell phone systems await regulatory assessments

 - December 6, 2006, 1:34 PM

Widespread testing has proven that new technology allows for in-flight use of cell phones without disrupting terrestrial networks. Now developers face the challenge of winning airworthiness approval for the systems and the licenses to use the relevant frequencies.

OnAir, the company formed last year by SITA and Airbus that also absorbed onboard e-mail and SMS specialist Tenzing, has already started talking with regulators in the Middle East. In fact, at press time OnAir’s senior director for industry and government affairs, Andrew Charlton, expected to meet with the Gulf Cooperation Council Technical Bureau this week. He also hopes to address a meeting of the Arab League Technical Bureau scheduled for January in Cairo.

OnAir’s regulatory efforts have so far focused mainly on Europe, however. A couple of fundamental questions marked the starting point, said Charlton, “Who do you get the license from and what should it be for?”

The International Telecommunications Union determines the permitted uses of the various frequency bands in the electromagnetic spectrum. It meets every three years or so to address new and changing demands. Individual countries then license users in their own territories in concert with the overall plan.

Traditional Airworthiness Route

Until now the conventional way to win licenses to use the 900- and 1,800-MHz bands involved applying individually to each country over which an equipped airplane might fly. To avoid the complications involved in that approach OnAir has decided to follow the traditional airworthiness route, in which the country of registration of the aircraft approves the use of the equipment and other countries accept it under reciprocal agreements.

In one sense the license issue is academic. Passengers must switch off cell phones once an aircraft has left the boarding gate ostensibly because their signals might interfere with aircraft systems. But the rule also exists to protect the terrestrial networks, which can experience disruptions as the regular signals the handsets emit get picked up by a series of cells in rapid succession.

To combat both problems, planned airborne systems use on-board pico cells, which force any phone on board to use a specified channel and operate at its lowest power setting–a level too weak to reach the terrestrial system and one that poses minimal risk to aircraft systems. Existing satellite communications links forward the phone calls themselves to and from Earth. So the only use of the spectrum will happen in sealed compartments at least 10,000 feet above the ground.

But OnAir recognizes that both airlines and the certification authorities will need reassurance that the systems comply with all regulatory requirements. So the company is working to win approval for the system on a regional basis, initially with the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT). It aims to secure favorable recommendations from the CEPT’s Electronic Communications Committee (ECC) to the continent’s 46 national regulators.

By the end of September the ECC’s regulatory affairs working group had agreed to a draft framework for submission to the ECC. The organization’s spectrum engineering working group was carrying out compatibility studies, and Charlton hoped it could complete them in time for the ECC to consider the two reports at its March meeting, in time to meet OnAir’s target approval date of mid-2006.

At the same time, a similar framework document now weaves its way through the approval process of the Asia Pacific Telecommunity Wireless Forum. Charlton expects the group to complete that document at its next meeting in January.

Airbus, working with the European Aviation Safety Agency, leads parallel work on airworthiness certification of the equipment. The company plans to introduce OnAir connectivity equipment on A320 family aircraft starting in the second half of next year.

OnAir has decided to use the Inmarsat SwiftBroadband service for transmission of calls and data between aircraft and ground, and has selected Thales to supply the satellite communications equipment and antenna. The satcom system is part of a new range, light and compact enough for deployment aboard short-haul and regional aircraft. EMS Satcom manufactures the antenna, and Siemens supplies the lightweight pico cell and channel selector for the system.

AeroMobile, the joint venture of Arinc and Telenor of Norway that is also developing an in-flight mobile phone system, has earned a license from the Norwegian authorities for the use of its system aboard aircraft until 2015.

As well as working with the regional authorities, AeroMobile said it plans to seek acceptance for deploying cellular systems on board aircraft within specific countries on the flight routes of its launch customers. It reckons that the areas of those countries coupled with flight routes over international waters will encompass a big enough geographical area to make the service viable.

Boeing installed the AeroMobile system in the 777-200LR Worldliner used for a global demonstration tour in June, July and August. On its conclusion Arinc said it had agreed with Boeing to explore line fit options for the system on both wide- and narrowbody models, starting with the 777.

In-flight entertainment major Panasonic Avionics has signed a letter of intent to integrate AeroMobile’s technology into its S3000, efx, eX2 and X-wireless systems. AeroMobile uses existing Inmarsat avionics aboard long-haul aircraft to support its service.

Connexion Cell Phone Service

Connexion by Boeing also plans to offer cell phone access, possibly as early as next year. Last month it demonstrated mobile telephony in flight aboard its Connexion One 737-400 test and demonstration airplane flying over international waters.

MovingMedia 2000 all-Internet protocol (IP) mobile network infrastructure equipment from Alameda, California-based UTStarcom made possible the use of both GSM and code-division multiple-access (CDMA) handsets for calls over the Connexion system; UTStarcom also provided technical support on the ground for call switching and completion.

MovingMedia 2000, allegedly the only all-IP mobile infrastructure solution on the market, does not require traditional time division multiplex transmission backhaul, according to Jack Mar, president of the vendor’s CDMA/GSM division. So it can deliver operational cost savings as well as supporting multiple telephony standards.

Connexion by Boeing said it intends to enable the use of mobile phone devices on board commercial airplanes via the existing broadband satellite link and plans to make the facility available to airline customers next year, “once discussions between regulatory authorities and airline customers worldwide have been concluded, and the industry has come to an agreement on how to implement it in practice,” said David Friedman, vice president of marketing and direct sales.