Cellphones may soon be approved for in-flight use

 - May 9, 2008, 6:45 AM

Passengers flying on the company jet may soon be allowed to use their personal cellphones to make and receive calls.

AirCell reports it is in the midst of developing airborne hardware that would essentially turn the aircraft into a flying cellular relay tower, letting anyone inside place calls using a regular analog-based cellphone. A small onboard receiver/translator would pick up the cellphone’s signals and transmit them to cellular ground stations without disrupting calls below. Testing of the concept is scheduled to start next year, with a launch perhaps coming as early as next fall.

The new service, which has yet to pass regulatory muster with the FAA or FCC, both of which prohibit cellphone use in the air, would let passengers place cellphone calls in the airspace over the continental U.S., where AirCell has added special antennas to more than 100 existing cell towers.

Already the plan has its opponents, mainly competing cellular service providers, who say calls placed from aircraft are going to wreak havoc on their cell networks. The problem lies in the fact that when a cellular phone is used in the air, it can activate several towers at the same time, confusing the network and in some cases even ending ground customers’ calls prematurely.

AirCell is seeking to assure regulators that the technology will not disrupt the service of cellular customers on the ground, nor will it have an effect on cockpit avionics, which are susceptible to interference from devices that emit RF signals.

There is a push by AirCell and airlines to secure waivers that will allow passengers flying on aircraft equipped with the AirCell hardware to use any analog cellphone during the en route portion of a flight. The process for gaining waivers would be similar to the rule exceptions AirCell won when it introduced its airborne cellular telephone devices and ground cellular infrastructure, with the major difference being that the cellphones themselves would not have to be certified for aviation use.

The new service would piggyback on AirCell’s existing cellular network, which has grown to include 134 towers covering roughly 95 percent of the continental U.S. in the airspace above 18,000 ft. On board the aircraft, a 2-MCU receiver/translator and external antenna would be the major equipment needed.

How would the concept work? When a passenger flying aboard an aircraft equipped with the AirCell hardware turns his or her cellphone on, the phone automatically would go into a listening mode, waiting to detect the strongest available cell signal. The receiver on the aircraft would appear as the nearest and strongest signal, and therefore it could command the phone to switch to its lowest power setting, limiting the amount of RF being transmitted inside the aircraft. Passengers who have digital phones without analog capability would receive a “no service” message, and would not be able to place or receive calls.

Major airlines are interested in the concept as a replacement for the money-losing GTE Airfone and AT&T Wireless seatback phones–which in the latter’s case were disconnected with AT&T’s exit from the market in September. But airlines say rollout might be three years away. In the meantime, business aviation would be tapped to serve as the launch pad for the service, according to Bill Peltola, vice president of sales and marketing for AirCell in Louisville, Colo.

“The airlines have expressed interest, and we have also seen significant interest on the business jet side,” said Peltola. “I envision that some of our early testing and certification may bring this to market much sooner for business aviation.”

More than 1,200 AirCell phone systems are now flying aboard business and general aviation aircraft. Peltola said one major airline has told AirCell that the type of service the company is planning is its number-one priority for new cabin electronics. GTE Airfone is developing a competing concept for the air-transport market, but is said to be progressing less quickly.

In AirCell’s case, the planned service rollout will occur in three phases, the first involving a deal with Frontier Airlines to install a current-generation AirCell phone system in one of the airline’s Airbus A319s. That setup will include a bulkhead-mounted wireless handset that passengers can remove from the docking cradle and use anywhere in the cabin.

In the next phase, kicking off early next year, AirCell plans to test and certify the hardware and antennas needed to allow passengers to place cellphone calls. Active RF management inside the cabin, said Peltola, will ensure that the cell signals do not affect onboard electronics, particularly cockpit avionics.

In the final phase, AirCell intends to implement plans to upgrade existing ground stations to support digital technology.

Peltola said the technology needed to make the service a reality already exists, and that rules prohibiting airborne cellphone use are all that stand in the way.

“Your cellphone will be communicating in its analog mode with the box on the aircraft,” he explained, “just as if you were using your cellphone out in Nebraska somewhere. The translation device on board is a portal that takes the signal and relays it and keeps the RF from spraying out the windows, which is what the FCC is worried about, and then puts the signal through the certified antenna on the bottom of the aircraft.”

The onboard hardware, said Peltola, relays the cellular signals, meaning that in theory every passenger could be on a call at the same time. The limitating factor is the ground infrastructure. AirCell towers currently have just five channels apiece–meaning just five calls can be routed at the same time–but Peltola said the ground stations are scaleable, meaning they can be upgraded to accommodate additional callers. “To be honest, it’s a problem we’d like to have,” he said.

Rather than swiping a credit card or signing up for service, callers would simply dial as they do on the ground, with a charge from AirCell appearing on their monthly cellphone statement. Pricing has yet to be nailed down, but Peltola said per-minute charges will run in the range of about $1.50 to $2. That compares with per-minute charges of $3.99 for GTE Airfone service plus a set-up fee of $3.99.

Price for the airborne hardware has not been determined either, but Peltola said he envisions a total package selling for perhaps two to three times as much as current AirCell phone systems. That would put the cost of entry in the neighborhood of $20,000 to $30,000 plus installation.