Cell phones take flight in Europe

  • 30-Jun-2008 07:36 EDT

The onboard GSM system links crew and passenger cell phones to an Altobridge GSM mobility gateway, at the heart of Aeromobile’s inflight system, which integrates with the onboard satcoms installation and communicates with terrestrial networks via the satellite link. The new technology offers passengers a solution that enables them to continue using their own mobile phones, with call charges billed to their own terrestrial operator.

While a multitude of airlines and communications providers have begun testing the reality of air-to-ground cell phone use in flight since the European Commission approved mobile phone use on planes, the first actual commercial flight where passengers were able to use their personal mobile phones for both voice and data occurred this past March on an Airbus A340-300 flying at 30,000 ft en route to Casablanca. Emirates was the carrier and the system delivering the technology was a group effort of Inmarsat, AeroMobile, and Altobridge.

Mike Fitzgerald, CEO of Altobridge, explained that the Altobridge system focuses on bandwidth utilization. The GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) is enabled on the plane, creating an “on-demand” capability. Because the system does not have to be up all the time, the link occurs only when there is an actual transaction—a call or data message. By minimizing use of the link, each call is delivered relatively economically.

“We decided there was no use in focusing on the radio base station on the plane because there are basic communications companies out there with great overall solutions,” said Fitzgerald. “Also, there was no point in focusing on the satellite world because Inmarsat already has great solutions for aircraft and ships. We stayed focused solely on the area that is the bridge between the aircraft and the land and making sure it was a very efficient system.”

The issue for years has been separation of the network on the ground from the network in the sky. This is important because when using multiple networks, it transverses or brings in another network above and creates “noise” in the network on the ground. So, what the major communications companies such as AeroMobile focused on was addressing the separation of the two networks completely. The network in the sky is now completely separate from the network on the ground. That was the key engineering feat.

AeroMobile provides the entire system hardware, including the server. On that server, they are running software that includes the Altobridge software to access the satellite broadband capability.

“The key is that [the Altobridge Gateway system] is translating software between the GSM world and allowing us to work reliably over the satellite links,” said David Coiley, Vice President of External Relations and Strategy, AeroMobile. “Satellite links always narrow up the bandwidth, resulting in a higher cost than on the ground. Therefore, you want to try to limit your use of them. The Altobridge mobile gateway capability allows us to do that in a more commercially viable way, while operating over the existing Inmarsat satellite system that is installed in all airlines around the world.”

AeroMobile is currently in flights on both Emeritus (voice and data) and Qantas (data only) airlines. “We are just the kernel in the middle that makes it work,” said Fitzgerald. “The initial solution is provided by AeroMobile.”

Coiley and Fitzgerald say that the European future for this technology lies in getting more bandwidth. “Give us more bandwidth and we can do wonderful things,” said Coiley. “We are all used to having DSL and greater bandwidth on the ground and we want it in the air, too. Aviation will be the next frontier for that.”

While the EC has opened the door for complete mobile phone use on planes, it is still illegal to use them on flights over the U.S.

The debate over this is pending with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. FAA. The holdup is not the technology, which the FAA has found to be sound; it is opposition from U.S. commuters who seem to be highly resistant to being potentially bombarded with a cacophony of cell phone users all entrapped in a wide-body together. Per FCC research, thousands have petitioned the FCC not to lift the ban on in-air mobile phone use. So, until resolved, U.S.-based airlines are concentrating on Internet access, with many airlines now in the process of performing Wi-FI technology testing.

However, with international airlines holding out the golden mobile phone ring, it may only be a matter of time before U.S. airlines develop some type of guidelines for in-flight personal phone use that passengers can live with—especially if it proves profitable elsewhere.

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