Arinc, Telenor announce ‘mobile in the sky’ plan

 - April 3, 2007, 7:57 AM

Will passengers flying on business jets and airliners really ever be able to use their personal cellphones to make and receive calls in flight? There is evidence that such services are closer than most people imagined, thanks to new levels of cooperation between a handful of high-tech companies and an apparent willingness on the part of regulatory authorities to let passengers keep their cellphones on even after the aircraft has left the ground.

Arinc and Norway-based Telenor will soon start marketing new technology allowing airline passengers to use personal GSM mobile phones aboard commercial flights. The concept would use Inmarsat satellites to route mobile calls and would be brought to business aviation at some point in the near future–perhaps even before the airlines start using it.

Arinc and Telenor formed an alliance last year to develop the technology and last month revealed their plans at an Inmarsat user conference in Montreal. Executives for the companies said the technology will allow “safe and seamless” use of today’s popular GSM mobile phones on any flight, a bold prediction considering some pilots remain convinced that cellphones can interfere with avionics.

“Passengers will be able to make and receive mobile phone calls, and send or receive text messages just as they do on the ground,” said Graham Lake, Arinc vice president and managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “It is not a question of whether mobile phones will be used on aircraft. It is merely a question of when.”

The new technology initially will leverage the classic Inmarsat satcom systems flying on thousands of business jets and airliners. The system, said Lake, is also designed to accommodate new technologies such as the Inmarsat Swift64 and upcoming SwiftBroadband services and Ku broadband systems such as Arinc’s SkyLink service.

Engineers from Telenor and Arinc and representatives of the airlines have started working to clear regulatory hurdles. Currently, the Federal Communications Commission and FAA (as well as regulatory bodies in most other countries) prohibit cellphone use in flight. But the technology envisioned for airborne mobile calling won’t interfere with avionics on board the aircraft or other cellphone users on the ground, the companies claim, meaning that governments may soon have to rethink current rules that prevent in-flight cellphone use.

How would the technology work? First of all, Arinc and Telenor say that only users with GSM cellphones (which are used mainly in Europe) will be able to make calls initially. North America’s CDMA cellphone technology will not be supported, but because the service uses Inmarsat, GSM cellphone users could place calls over North America, or anywhere else that Inmarsat calling is available. The service could eventually support CDMA technology, but Arinc and Telenor don’t really see this as a big issue because many in the U.S. already own cellphones that work on both CDMA and GSM networks, and anyone who travels to Europe from North America regularly is likely to own a GSM-supported phone.

According to Arinc and Telenor, on board the airplane there would be a receiver that would talk to users’ mobile telephones, in essence instructing the cellphone to go to
its lowest possible power setting. This will prevent airborne calls from interfering with users on the ground, as well as cockpit avionics. Testing of Arinc hardware will start later this year, and flight trials are planned for early next year.

For airline passengers, pricing will be targeted to match international roaming rates. Aboard business jets, passengers would pay no more to place a call with their cellphone than what they are charged for satcom calling.