Starting this summer, a spate of cellular and voice products are slated to enter the market, further transforming the aircraft cabin into a mobile office, telephone booth and living room.
Onboard phone services are not new — satellite phones debuted on aircraft nearly 20 years ago. However, more airlines, looking to cut installation and maintenance costs, are moving away from seatback systems and more toward services utilizing a customer’s personal device. And recent departures, including the exits of Verizon Airfone in the in-flight telephony market and Connexion by Boeing in the data/broadband market, have left a hole for other companies to fill.
Together, these developments help explain the proliferation of Internet and telephone services hitting the global market in the coming months.
European companies OnAir and AeroMobile are awaiting final approvals to launch picocell-based systems allowing onboard cell phone conversations. OnAir, a SITA and Airbus venture, hopes to launch its system on an Air France Airbus 318 later this summer. Other customers for the service, including Ireland’s Ryannair, Portugal’s TAP and British Midland Airways, will follow.
The European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) approved OnAir’s GSM satellite-backed system in June.
"There are a number of factors effecting" the initiation of service, said Graham Lake, chief commercial officer with Switzerland-based OnAir. "We have to take account of aircraft certification requirements. We are there or thereabouts with EASA and the Air France aircraft. We are expected to be there or thereabouts by the summer period with Ryannair, with the 737. Then we have to have regulatory approvals from the individual states in which the aircraft is registered, as well as EASA."
Using Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service, OnAir’s system will allow passengers to use their laptops, GSM-enabled cell phones and Blackberry-type devices, with charges to be determined by the phone/Internet operator. The system, including picocell, weighs about 100 pounds, and incorporates technology from Tenzing Communications, of Seattle, the company that pioneered in-flight e-mail.
A picocell located on the A318 will pick up mobile phone signals via a "leaky cable" antenna running the length of the plane. The signal is then converted, sent to a satellite and re-routed to the ground network. This avoids saturation of multiple enroute terrestrial towers by direct contact with individual cell phones. For the first three months of the six-month Air France trial, passengers will only be able to use the connectivity for data, such as text messaging or sending e-mails from a BlackBerry or similar device. For the second three months, passengers will be able to use their mobile phones to make voice calls during a flight.
OnAir was moving forward with regulatory approvals from the various countries and EASA, in addition to establishing roaming agreements with various cell companies. Lake said OnAir had regulatory approval from 12 European countries. Europe does not have the same barriers that the United States has, so "it’s a little easier and a little less cumbersome for us to go through that process," Lake said.
For AeroMobile, a partnership of ARINC and Telenor, the launch customer for fleet-wide installation is Dubai-based Emirates airline. AeroMobile said Australian carrier Qantas is trialing the system on a 767 flying domestic Australian routes. "We will be launching as soon as we have full approvals, and are targeting operating over Europe, the Middle East and Australasia in the first instance," said David Coiley, AeroMobile director of marketing and strategic relationships.
The AeroMobile system consists of six avionics units, including a Linux server, base transceiver station (BTS), cell-phone radio frequency management unit (CRFMU), leaky feeder coaxial cable and radio frequency outputs. The server software converts cellular standards to operate over the Inmarsat satellite system. The BTS unit handles the actual cellular calls, text messages and data.
Europe and Asia are regulatory miles ahead of the United States in terms of allowing the use of in-flight cell phones. Picocells, small specialized cellular base stations supporting cellular calls, are currently illegal in the United States.
This spring, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) canceled a proceeding to accept public comments on the use of cell phones aboard aircraft, citing insufficient data regarding technical interference with terrestrial systems. In addition, comments submitted to FCC before the cancellation suggest a "social" interference concern with onboard cell phones, i.e., the desire not to be sitting next to someone chatting away on a cell phone at 30,000 feet.
However, service providers are quick to debunk that, saying protocols for onboard cell phones will evolve. "The fact is that services need to be tailored to the in-flight environment in the same way as the introduction of cell phones on the ground. The use of cell phones in situations such as movie theaters, restaurants and meetings and conferences show how rapidly the appropriate ‘etiquette’ can evolve," Coiley said. Lake said OnAir’s standard system can only support 14 to 15 simultaneous phone calls, although it can be expanded to allow more calls.
Additionally, attitudes toward onboard cell phone service differ by region, Coiley said. For example, users in Asia and the Middle East are far more accepting and tolerant of the use of cell phones on aircraft. "We cannot comment on the exact reasons for FCC’s position but understand that there has been less market demand and industry activity in North America," Coiley said.
Commented Lake: "I think most airlines adopt the view that this is a non-issue. We think people will adapt their behavior, we think people will make use of the data services, SMS (Short Message Service) and so on."
Nonetheless, the world is an increasingly connected place for business travelers and vacationers alike, and it will likely be a matter of time before regulatory agencies catch up with the public. While no one is naming names, in-flight telephony service providers say interest from U.S. airlines is there.
"The U.S. carriers are definitely looking at [allowing cell phones onboard] seriously as a capability that they are clearly considering implementation of," said Lake. "My own personal view is that the U.S. approvals will be forthcoming as soon as a significant North American airline expresses a desire to do it."
Despite the regulatory hurdles in the United States, Row 44, an in-flight entertainment (IFE) startup based in Westlake Village, Calif., plans eventually to move into the onboard telephony market. Row 44 is launching its IFE system on revenue service aircraft with a "U.S. major" airline in the fourth quarter of this year, said Gregg Fialcowitz, founder and president. Fleetwide deployment will begin in early 2008.
The Row 44 system is based on technology from Hughes, operating over the existing, high-capacity Ku-band, already certified worldwide. The system accommodates two separate data streams — one for broadband, the other for Internet Protocol TV (IPTV). Components include a low-profile antenna mounted on top of the fuselage, a server management unit, a high-power amplifier, a modem data unit and wireless access units. For cell phones, the only addition would be a picocell, Fialcowitz said. All told, the system weighs about 130 pounds.
After logging onto the cabin hotspot, passengers will see transfer rates as high as 81 megabits per second downlinked from the satellite to the aircraft and rates of up to 1.6 Mbps in the uplink direction. The service supports Internet and e-mail and has capacity for planned future services, including worldwide in-flight television, Row 44 said. The two data streams eventually will allow the system to support more simultaneous phone calls and faster downloads than its competitors, Fialcowitz said.
"Our business model is not based on voice. If the airline wants voice, and if regulatory counterparts — FAA and FCC — approve it, we have no issue whatsoever putting it into the system," Fialcowitz said.
AirCell, of Louisville, Colo., emerged last year as the winner of a spectrum auction by FCC for air-to-ground broadband frequencies. It plans to launch an airborne broadband service early next year.
"Data services are clearly where the demand lies, and that’s where we’re focused," said AirCell Director of Marketing Tom Myers. "Regarding voice, our technical approach will easily allow for voice services, should the market and the FCC desire and allow those services in the future. At present, we have no plans to offer voice in the near future."
Satellite Voice Service Unveiled
Outside of the picocell ban in the United States, companies are moving forward with satellite-based plans to bring voice services into the cabin.
At the EBACE conference in Geneva in June, satellite communications provider EMS Satcom, of Ottawa, unveiled a voice solution for its eNfusion CNX-400 Cabin Gateway product line, consisting of the CNX-400, the CNX Communications Convergence Unit (CNX CCU), and a wired or wireless handset with a cradle. The system supports two-wire POTS (plain old telephone service), four-wire voice and 802.11g SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) voice capabilities.
With four Ethernet ports, the CNX CCU also supports fax and printing capabilities. The CCU can be wired into the cabin and provides access at various locations around the airplane.
"It seems like for satellite communications, voice has become the killer app," said Gary Hebb, EMS Satcom vice president of engineering and business development. "Everybody is looking for new voice solutions. At the same time, we have broadband and data that is going to be providing a big pipe for people to use to communicate with the ground."
Primarily equipped in VIP and corporate aircraft, the CNX-400 is a SwiftBroadband-ready cabin networking device, combining the compression and acceleration functionality of EMS Satcom’s CNX-200 Network Accelerator with the new voice solution and an integrated PBX telephone exchange. SwiftBroadband, the new broadband service offered by Inmarsat, will become operational this year.
"Everyone would like to find a solution that offers voice and data over the same data link," Hebb said. "Customers generally would like to have a converged solution. They see that it is more economical to just have a pipe open to be used for voice and data interchangeably."
Electronic Cable Specialists www.ecsdirect.com
EMS Satcom www.emssatcom.com
Flight Display Systems www.flightdisplay.com
NAT Seattle www.natseattle.com
Northern Airborne Technology Ltd. www.northernairborne.com
Panasonic Avionics Corp. www.mascorp.com
Rockwell Collins www.rockwellcollins.com
Row 44 www.row44.com
Sagem Avionics www.sagemavionics.com
Sennheiser Electronic Corp. www.sennheiser.com
Starling Advanced Communication www.starling-com.com
Teac Aerospace Technologies www.teac-aerospace.com
Tecom Industries www.tecom-ind.com
Teledyne Controls www.teledyne-controls.com
Thales Group www.thalesgroup.com