Germany’s Siemens AG and airplane maker Airbus have announced a joint venture to provide in-flight cell phone service to airline passengers by 2006. Airbus will build the technology into existing airplane systems, market the system to airlines and airplane manufacturers, and provide service and maintenance. Siemens will supply lightweight nano-GSM/GPRS base stations to create “micro-cells” on board aircraft which do not interfere with onboard systems or ground-based telephone systems. The system aims to provide users continuous service to their own mobile devices while in flight, an appealing notion for some business and personal travellers.
The systems are expected to first be deployed on Airbus A320 planes flying in western European routes. A key component of the solution is channel selection technology which prevents the onboard systems from contacting ground-based networks or interfering with avionics. Airbus and Siemens say the system will accommodate future expansion to add more GSM capacity as well as other technologies such as WLAN. The companies expect the systems will open a new revenue channel for airlines, who will presumably charge for in-flight mobile phone service.
Rival airplane maker Boeing already offers its Connexion service to provide Web access on selected airplanes; Boeing says it plans to begin selling in-flight cell phone service capabilities by during 2006.
Revenue models for in-flight cellular service are not yet solidified: phone and satellite operators, airlines, and aircraft makers are all angling for pieces, with phone operators expected to take the lion’s share. However, travellers haven’t yet warmed to the idea of inflight phone service: while some business travellers think it would be a boon, some view “offline” time on flights as a respite from the frantic pace of constant communication.
Neither Siemens/Airbus’s new service and Boeing’s Connexion are currently deployed or planned for deployment on air routes within the Unites States. Considering terrorists’ possible use of in-air wireless Internet and cellular technology, the U.S. Justice Department has proposed the FCC mandate in-flight Internet service be wiretap-friendly, requiring the technical capability to intercept in-flight Internet traffic within at most 10 minutes of a subpoena being granted, and that carriers provide highly granular information and control over inflight broadband services, including identifying every Internet user by name and seat number. The FCC has indicated it may be receptive to the proposal. The Justice Department’s request is based on the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act,, which required phone operators make their systems easily tappable by the FBI. Last year, the law was extended by the FCC to cover data transmitted via cable and DSL broadband services. The FCC’s take on inflight cellular service has not yet been established, but the Justice Department is likely to take a keen interest in the regulation of services offering inbound cellular service to in-flight passengers.