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March 16, 2006

'Airlines Prepare For Cellphone Calling'


This past Tuesday airline industry reporter Scott McCartney of the Wall Street Journal, in his column "The Middle Seat," wrote about the possible imminent approval of cellphone calling during flight.

Of course, many people already talk on the phone while they're in the air in violation of the current industry–wide ban.

McCartney noted that on average "... one to four cell calls were surreptitiously made on each flight studied."

Then, of course, there are the early adopters of VOIP, who've been legally making calls from 30,000 feet via their laptop computers for years.

Here's the Journal story.

    Airlines Prepare for Cellphone Calling

    Service Could Begin Next Year, But Safety Remains an Issue; Fliers Sneaking Calls Now

    With technology and regulators moving rapidly, passengers could be making and receiving cellphone calls aboard airline flights next year.

    But a new study raises questions over whether that will be safe for airplanes.

    The study arrives less than two months before crucial government decisions about inflight wireless communications are set to be made.

    On May 10, the Federal Communications Commission will auction radio spectrum that will allow telecommunications companies to operate wireless Internet and cellphone services for air travel.

    Already, several companies, including Verizon Communications Inc., AirCell, a closely held Colorado company, and AeroMobile, a joint venture of ARINC Inc. and Telenor ASA, are lining up to bid.

    The FAA recently approved a Verizon Wi-Fi system that lets laptops connect to the Internet from airplanes. (If Verizon wins spectrum at the May 10 auction, the company says the system could be up and running in 2007.)

    Some companies are also unveiling new technology they say will make inflight calling less disruptive and safer.

    The problem with using cellphones on airplanes is that the devices can interfere with Global Positioning Satellite systems, researchers say.

    These systems are increasingly being used on commercial airplanes for navigation.

    Interference could cause an airplane to lose the GPS signal or even make a flight veer off course.

    Currently, federal rules prohibit the use of personal electronic devices onboard airplanes unless airlines can prove they are safe to operate.

    In the new study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University rode 37 passenger flights on three airlines with a device that measured radio-frequency emissions from personal electronic devices, like cellphones, BlackBerries and laptop computers.

    The study found emissions from cellphones that could interfere with GPS systems.

    It also revealed that some fliers are already making phone calls in defiance of an industrywide ban: Indeed, one to four cell calls were surreptitiously made on each flight studied.

    Inflight cellular calls cause other problems, too.

    Since calling from high up in the air can tie up a big chunk of capacity, wireless users on the ground can be blocked from service.

    The FCC had banned cellphone use on planes because of this problem.

    But now communications companies are unrolling new technology to address that issue.

    Some companies are preparing to equip airplanes with "pico cell" cellular antennas that will allow as many as 100 cellphones at a time to work without disrupting cell service on the ground.

    Since pico cells are installed on airplanes are thereby close to the cellphones of passengers, the phones operate at low power and won't produce interference with instruments, companies say.

    Because of the pico-cell technology, which has been successfully demonstrated with calls to and from an American Airlines flight and Boeing's recent long-distance record-setting 777 trip, the FCC has dropped its objection to using cellphones on airplanes.

    Now the Federal Aviation Administration must make its own decision.

    The agency has deputized a nonprofit advisory group called the RTCA Inc. to study the use of personal electronic devices aboard airplanes and to recommend policy, and the RTCA expects to issue a final report in December.

    The report will likely outline specific procedures for companies and airlines to prove that devices are safe to use, said Dave Carson, co-chair of the RTCA committee and a Boeing Co. official.

    Both the Wi-Fi network and the cell service will use radio spectrum that the FCC will auction on May 10 for air-to-ground communications.

    The spectrum had been reserved for telephones installed on airplanes.

    But since those expensive, static-filled phones never took off, the FCC decided to reallocate it.

    Two licenses will be awarded, FCC spokeswoman Chelsea Fallon said.

    But the researchers at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh say they believe more study is needed before allowing inflight cellphone calls.

    The researchers found that even though cellphones and laptops communicate in radio bands that are separate from those used by GPS instruments, emissions were still found in the GPS spectrum.

    That is because emissions from several cellphones can mix together and migrate to different frequencies, a phenomenon that is called "intermodulation."

    "There is a clear and present danger: cellphones can render GPS instruments useless for landings," the authors said in an article published in IEEE Spectrum.

    Carnegie Mellon's research was funded by the FAA.

    Mr. Carson said the RTCA is looking at intermodulation and the Carnegie Mellon results.

    The university research "does lend some empirical support to what we knew from the beginning," he said.

    The RTCA has also found evidence of possible GPS receiver interference.

    But the committee also believes technical dangers can be overcome, he said.

    One certainty: Phone use, like use of computers and other electronic devices, will only be allowed when planes are above 10,000 feet, and will be prohibited during takeoff and landing.

    Sometime within the next year, airlines will likely being training flight attendants on how to instruct passengers on proper seat chatter procedures and etiquette.

    With the background noise of an airplane in one ear, users tend to talk loudly into a cellphone.

    But yelling only makes the transmission worse (and neighbors angry), experts say, and phones don't pick up loud voices clearly. (Headphones may help.)

    Do travelers really want to gab inflight?

    Of 8,000 comments to the FCC when it proposed dropping its ban, only two or three were in favor.

    The rest, except for the 50 or so technical reports, were from travelers vociferously opposed, arguing that airplanes should be a refuge from calls and emails.

    Flight attendant unions are also opposed, fearing obnoxious phone habits could lead to air-rage incidents.

    If cellphones are allowed on airplanes, Granger Morgan, head of Carnegie Mellon's department of engineering and public policy, would like to see one other change: Flight-data recorders to track electronic emissions should be modified so that crash investigators can document a problem if trouble develops.


Just one more reason not to fly.

Did you notice, by the way, that Northwest Airlines is now going to charge you an extra $15 for an aisle seat?

I'm just saying.

March 16, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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