CONNECTED COMMENT (30/08/05)
MOBILES JOIN THE MILE HIGH CLUB
You know the drill. ‘Please put your tray
tables and seatbacks in the upright position and make sure that mobile phones
are switched off for the duration of the flight…’ Commercial aircraft are one
of the few places left on earth, or rather above it, where you won’t be
distracted by cheesy ringtones and half overheard conversations, but maybe not
for much longer.
Assuming the few remaining technical and
legislative hurdles are overcome you should soon be able to use your mobile to
make and take calls at 30,000 feet. You can already surf the web and send and
receive emails on your Wi-Fi equipped laptop or PDA on a number of long-haul
flights. But hang on, what about all those stern warnings, about electronic
devices interfering with sensitive aircraft instruments?
Planes haven’t suddenly got any safer,
truth be known on many flights at least one person accidentally leaves their
mobile phone switched on but the aircraft doesn’t fall out of the sky or get
lost. In fact the real problem is down on the ground. An airborne mobile phone
has the potential to be within range of scores, possibly hundreds of mobile
phone base stations or ‘cells’, particularly over densely populated areas and
it would only take a few chatters and texters on a handful of aircraft to jam a
city’s phone network.
One solution is to stop the mobile phone
signals getting out of the aircraft in the first place. Plane maker Airbus, in
collaboration with Siemens is working on ways to provide passengers with an
in-flight mobile phone service by installing a ‘picocell’ and using the
aircraft’s satellite data link to patch calls through to ground-based networks.
The picocell stops cell phones inside the cabin attempting to log on to base
station on the ground by automatically reducing their transmission power.
Needless to say it will also provide aircraft operators with another
moneymaking opportunity with higher rate call charges. Even so it should still
be a lot cheaper than the scarily expensive seatback and armrest phones
installed in many of today’s aircraft.
The Airbus mobile phone network is
expected to be operational next year. A rival service now being developed by
Boeing should follow soon after, though surveys conducted by the company
predict that some passenger resistance can be expected to loud and annoying
voice calls in the close confines of an aircraft cabin.
Airborne broadband is already with us and
Boeing Connexion is now, or is about to be installed by a number of operators
including ANA, Asiana, Singapore Airlines, China Airlines, JAL, Korean
Airlines, Lufthansa and SAS with Australian Airlines and El Al soon to join
Connexion uses a high-speed satellite
data link to provide passengers with broadband, comparable with terrestrial DSL
services. It will be available to everyone onboard and connection speeds are
currently in the region of 5Mb (downstream to the Internet is around 1Mb), with
the potential to reach 20Mb.
It works in much the same way as
subscription-based wireless ‘hotspots’ on the ground with Wi-Fi Access points
installed at strategic points throughout the cabins. Products from a number of
manufacturers are now going through a rigorous certification process. On
broadband equipped aircraft registered users simply log on and pay for their
connection on a sliding scale of charges. Surfing your way through a flight
lasting up to 3 hours will set you back around $15. A 6-hour flights costs $20
and longer journeys work out at $30. Online time can also be purchased by the
minute or in blocks.
The technology open up all sorts of
possibilities including alternative entertainment and interactive services.
Flight attendant call buttons could become redundant; in the future when you
fancy a top-up just send them an email. The big question, though, is whether or
not cabin crews will receive any extra training in configuring and
troubleshooting wireless connections...
There’s no escape for those who prefer a
more leisurely or exotic modes of transport and there will soon be an
opportunity to surf while you cruise. Boeing Maritime is currently kitting out
50 vessels belonging to Teekay Shipping with Connexion systems. And no doubt
Sir Richard Branson is eyeing up the potential for passengers to send emails
messages and make phone calls from low earth orbit when Virgin Galactica takes
to the skies in 2007…
Ó R. Maybury 2005 2108