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The Sensible Traveler

Cellphones pass in-flight test

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / August 1, 2004

Airlines for years have prohibited the use of wireless phones after takeoff, but new technology may make the devices as familiar in flight as they are everywhere else.

Earlier this month, Patrick Morin used his wireless phone to call his mother from an American Airlines jet flying at 30,000 feet. The call was clear and easy to make, Morin said, lending credence to the view that wireless phones can be used aboard a jet without interfering with the plane's navigational systems or cellular networks on the ground.

"It went great. The test arguably exceeded our expectations," said Morin, managing director of information technology at American.

Morin's flight took off from Dallas-Fort Worth Airport July 15 specifically to test whether cellular phones and other wireless devices could be used safely while traveling at 25,000 to 30,000 feet. The test was run by American and Qualcomm Inc. of San Diego and authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission, the two agencies that currently prohibit the use of wireless phones on flights.

The FAA's chief concern is that the power needed for a wireless phone to lock onto a cellphone tower on the ground would generate so much radiation that the plane's on-board navigational equipment could be disrupted.

The FCC worries that a wireless phone in the air could lock onto more than one land-based cellphone tower at a time, disrupting the network.

The American-Qualcomm test sidestepped both agencies' concerns by installing a tray-table-size antenna inside an overhead luggage compartment. Phones on board locked on to the antenna immediately, using the same wattage as a laptop computer.

The antenna then linked the call to a satellite, which in turn relayed it to a satellite receptor on the ground and on to its destination. The test worked smoothly, officials said, allowing passengers to make and receive calls and transmit data.

The chief complaint was a slight delay in voice traffic as the sound traveled to and from the satellite. Scott Becker, senior vice president at Qualcomm wireless sytems, said the delay was less than a second. He said he thinks that delay can be reduced considerably with more work on the system.

Some passengers already may be surreptitiously using cell phones aboard planes, but it's probably fairly rare. During the Sept. 11 hijackings, some passengers aboard the four flights used their wireless phones to contact loved ones or to call airline officials on the ground. Becker said those calls worked because the planes were flying relatively low and near urban centers that have lots of cellphone towers. At higher altitudes, he said, the calls would not have gone through.

American and Qualcomm officials say it probably will take at least two years and more tests before the FAA and FCC soften their stance against wireless phones in flight, but the test showed that the biggest challenges ahead may have less to do with the technology and more to do with business models and phone etiquette in the air.

For example, Morin said a probable business model for phoning from the air would be one very similar to the ground approach. The airline would make money by renting space to wireless companies for a tiny "tower" aboard the plane, while the wireless phone companies would charge a special rate -- aerial roaming perhaps? -- for calls made from the airline cabin.

"American Airlines sees a tremendous amount of potential here," Morin said. "People will try to stay connected as long as they possibly can."

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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