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Cellphones on planes may be heading for the US, but will anyone use them?

Stephen Lawson | Dec. 13, 2013
Foreign airlines might easily extend service on flights into the country if the FCC allows it.

On an average flight of an AeroMobile-equipped plane, there are five or six phone calls with a typical duration of 90 seconds to two minutes, Rogers said. More than 80 percent of those on the AeroMobile system use only text or data, he said. For OnAir, about 60 percent of activity is data use, 20 percent is texting and 10 percent is voice.

The cabin crew can turn off the voice capability of OnAir's system during quiet times, such as when most passengers are sleeping, Dawkins said in an email message. He claimed there has not been a single complaint about voice calls in the six years that OnAir Mobile has been operating.

Despite such assurances, U.S. airlines have shown little interest in voice calling, citing passengers' preferences. Even though VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) services such as Skype could run over the in-flight Wi-Fi widely available on U.S. airlines, none currently allow voice calls.

However, the first cellular calls in the air could come from another direction.

When foreign airlines fly cell-equipped planes over the U.S., they have to turn off the service even if it's available for the rest of the international journey. For example, passengers on a flight from London to Washington, D.C., are advised that their cellular voice and data service will be cut off for the last two to three hours of the trip as the plane flies over the U.S. East Coast, AeroMobile's Rogers said.

"It's frustrating for the passengers, it's frustrating for the cabin crew, and it's frustrating for us," Rogers said. OnAir's Dawkins takes a similar view.

If the FCC rule change is approved and does what it seems to propose, those foreign carriers will probably look to extend passengers' cell privileges to the U.S. portion of their flights as soon as possible, Rogers and Dawkins believe. The Federal Aviation Administration has already approved onboard picocells as safe for flying, and AeroMobile has permission to use its satellite spectrum in the U.S., Rogers said.

Virgin Atlantic, an AeroMobile customer, offers cellular on 17 of its planes and would like to be able to extend that service to the U.S., according to spokeswoman Olivia Gall.

Not surprisingly, Rogers thinks U.S. airlines also will adopt cellular. OnAir said it is in active discussions with several U.S. airlines.

U.S. airlines' deployments may come in two phases, first on long-haul international flights and later on domestic trips, Rogers said.

"Their international competitors are taking the view, almost without exception, that they want to put onboard full connectivity ... both Wi-Fi and mobile phone," Rogers said. While some passengers are willing to sign up and pay for Wi-Fi, others want the simplicity of simply turning on their phones and using them as usual, paying the cost as part of their regular monthly phone bill, he said.

 

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