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Perspective: WAEA: On Board With Wireless

By Richard Salter | December 1, 2003
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The use of carry-on electronic devices with wireless communications capability is increasing among airline passengers. Over the past two and a half years the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) has been helping facilitate the safe introduction and adoption of this new technology in flight. In January 2001, the WAEA Technology Committee formed a wireless working group (WWG).

Initially, this entity is to educate the airline community on the issues surrounding passenger use of wireless devices. The WWG’s formal mission has become to advance the use of cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), computer local area networks (LANs), entertainment devices, etc. on board aircraft. The WWG addresses everything from mobile phone usage to WiFi wireless LAN access to Bluetooth headsets for audio players, and how these devices affect aircraft operations.

Airlines want to safely offer onboard access to the same tools and toys their passengers use at work and at home. The WWG has joined all the stakeholders involved with this goal: telecom infrastructure providers, manufacturers of wireless equipment, in-flight entertainment and avionics suppliers, airlines, airframe manufacturers, and regulatory authorities. It has identified issues to be resolved in three main areas: operational, certification and system specification. The operational issues are:

  • How do airlines avoid becoming "policemen," ensuring that only permitted types of carry-on devices are in use?

  • How will airlines manage cell phone use on board to minimize disruptions to nearby passengers (ringing and talking)?

  • Do wireless devices create health issues for the crew, since numerous transmitters may exist in their workspace?

The certification issues are:

  • How does the industry certify portable electronic devices (PEDs)? A sound, uniform process for certifying portable devices is needed. The issues can be handled separately for two categories of equipment: contained, deterministic systems designed for use within the fuselage and passenger carry-on devices.

  • What about quality control issues? PEDs from various suppliers may perform differently from the sample device certified.

  • What are the airworthiness certification issues for FAA, Joint Aviation Authority (JAA) and all other aviation authorities worldwide? And what harmonization efforts are needed?

  • What level of interference can cabin systems and avionics tolerate? The power level and bandwidth requirements for a GSM phone picocell, for example, differ signficantly from those of an IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN.

And the system specification issues are:

  • What is the bandwidth available now and in the future for all types of wireless devices: radio frequency, infrared, magnetic induction, etc.?

  • What other wireless systems are in operation on the aircraft, such as wireless fire detector systems and RF identification for cargo containers and passenger bags?

  • What other types of cell phones must be addressed: TDMA, CDMA, GSM, etc.?

  • What about frequency band allocation issues? Some bands are allocated for use only in certain regions, and U.S. Federal Communications Commission vs. European frequency allocations are an issue.

Recently, the WWG has focused on educational forums. The first forum was a two-day WAEA Single-Focus Workshop on "Wireless Onboard," held in Washington, D.C., in November 2002. As a result of that workshop, FAA requested that RTCA look at PEDs to help establish standards that the airline community can apply. RTCA SC202 has since been formed to study whether wireless telecommunications devices on commercial flights interfere with navigational equipment.

The second Wireless Onboard workshop took place Nov. 11-12 in Hamburg, Germany [as Avionics Magazine went to press]. It examined trials updates, technology issues, standards efforts and regulations. The trials covered were to include Lufthansa German Airlines’ and British Airways’ efforts with Connexion By Boeing, Frontier Airlines’ trial with Aircell, and United Airlines’ and Continental Airlines’ efforts with Verizon Airfone JetConnect. ARINC, Boeing and Airbus were to cover the standards efforts. And regulations were to be the subject for EUROCAE WG-58, RTCA SC-202, JAA and the British Civil Aviation Authority.

For more information on wireless devices on board aircraft, see the WAEA Web site at www.waea.org and click on Wireless Onboard Single Focus Workshop, or contact the WWG co-chairs: Andrew Allaway (andrew_allaway@stratosglobal.com), Jim Mitchell (jpmitche@collins.rockwell.com), and Kevin Munday (kevin.munday@mascorp.com).

Richard Salter is an in-flight entertainment consultant and co-chairman of the WAEA Technology Committee.

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