In-flight cell phones 'worked great' in test
By Dan Reed, USA TODAY
The race is on to enable airline passengers to make and receive cell phone calls in flight.
Cell phone company Qualcomm (QCOM) has teamed with American Airlines (AMR)
to develop satellite-based air-to-ground cellular service. Several
smaller companies are working on rival systems. In-flight cell service
could be introduced within two years and become commonplace within
four, developers believe.
Last week, American and Qualcomm officials
circled over West Texas in a jetliner making calls from their cell
phones. The Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal
Communications Commission authorized the flight to test the
technology's safety and transmission quality.
"It worked great," says Monte Ford, American's
chief information officer, and the special flight's host. "I called the
office. I called my wife. I called a friend in Paris. They all heard me
great, and I could hear them loud and clear."
The Qualcomm-American partnership covers
development and testing. If the technology and business models work,
Qualcomm could sell it to other airlines as well. And American, the
world's largest airline, could decide to use another system on its
Even competitors liked the test flight. Bill
Peltola, vice president of marketing at rival AirCell in Louisville,
Colo., says the flight "demonstrated the safe use of cell phones in
flight ... and that's good for our industry."
There are still hurdles. Technical bugs need to
be worked out. The FCC must be convinced that the new technology won't
disrupt cell systems on the ground. And the FAA, airline safety
watchdogs and pilots' groups must be convinced the calls won't
interfere with aircraft systems and instruments.
Just as important, airline managers and their
technology partners must come up with a business model that produces
revenue for both.
But there's little doubt that demand for
in-flight cell service is strong. Airlines began offering in-flight
phone service to passengers in the late 1980s. Despite high prices — $3
to connect and $7 a minute to use the AT&T (T)
service on American — the service was a hit early on. But as cell
phones became smaller and almost ubiquitous and cell rates dropped, use
of the airlines' in-flight phones "fell off the table," says Dan
Garton, American's executive vice president.
"Our friends at the telephone companies will
tell you it was mainly a service quality issue," he says. "But I've got
to think that $10-a-minute rates had more to do with it."
Developers of the new technology say travelers
will use their cell phones in flight if the price is right. And that
right price is probably less than $1 a minute, they say. Customers
could pay by entering their credit card numbers when they place a call,
or they could see the charges added to their monthly cell phone bills.
Those who plan on making lots of air-to-ground
calls might not even pay by the minute. AirCell is talking with cell
service companies about selling them huge blocks of air-to-ground talk
time. The cell companies could resell the time to their customers as
part of a bundle of premium services.
Sky Way Aircraft of Clearwater, Fla., is
developing technology for delivering broadband communications and
entertainment services to airline passengers via cell phones, laptops
or handheld devices. It says research suggests that revenue from
air-to-ground and ground-to-air communications could top $8 billion by
Qualcomm's satellite-based system uses a
notebook computer-sized device called a "Pico cell" inside the airplane
to act like a small cellular tower, managing separate signals. The
signals then will be beamed to a satellite for distribution to ground
The Sky Way and AirCell systems work much the
same way, only the signals are beamed from the plane to ground towers
instead of satellites.
Qualcomm says its satellite system will be more
reliable and provide better transmission quality. The ground tower
system developers say their services will be cheaper, with more call
Signal delay is also an issue with
satellite-based systems. On last week's test flight, callers reported
about a 1-second delay — what TV news watchers witness when an
anchorman in New York talks via satellite with a reporter in
Also, the tested system topped out at 14 simultaneous calls.
"The technology is growing rapidly," American's
Ford says. "Just a few months ago the limit was four calls at once. By
the time this comes to market, the capacity will be where it needs to
Ultimately, Garton says, the success of
in-flight cell phones will depend on whether airlines and their
telecommunications partners each can come up with a way to make money
from the venture.
Garton says the airlines should get a small
piece of the service fee, just as they get a payment when customers use
the Wi-Fi service in their airport clubs. Says Garton: "The industry
has to come up with a business model that will work for us, and be
priced right for the passengers. I haven't seen that yet."