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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 December, 2004, 22:38 GMT
Prepare for flights with bleeping mobiles
Stephen Evans
By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

Prepare to be invaded by noise. Get ready for the last remaining haven of peace to be broken.

At the moment, there is one area of business life which is free of mobile phone chatter. There is one place where we are spared the endless bulletins on the minutiae of other lives: only when we fly do we escape the mobile phone.

Donald Trump aboard his private plane in 2000
The rules governing the use of electronic gadgets on flights are as complex as they are contradictory

This week, though, the Federal Communications Commission is to consider how to ease the ban on cell phones in aircraft.

It's expected to look at two measures: increasing competition to bring down the price of using the phones currently on the back of aircraft seats, and starting to look for technical solutions so ordinary mobile phones can function at high altitudes.


Currently, phones can't be used on planes for two reasons: one, airlines say they could interfere with navigation systems. Two, at cruising altitudes they can't connect with the network of masts on the ground (though at low altitude, they can, as some of the passengers on hi-jacked United Airlines flight 93 did on 11 September 2001).

Some technological solutions to this second problem have already been examined with some success.

American Airlines has experimented with a device called a "picocell", a miniature receiver installed on an aircraft.

Passengers use their existing phones, with the signal picked up on this picocell and then relayed to a satellite and then to the ground.

And it seemed to work.

Easy charging

Back in July, American Airlines, along with the computer company Qualcomm, installed the device and used it on a two hour flight over Texas with passengers using their own phones to speak and text.

British pilot Colin Bodill receives congratulations over the telephone from UK Prime Minister Tony Blair after flying to Sydney
Combining phones and flying is no longer as tricky as it used to be

The system would offer great advantages: it would be designed not to clash with other aircraft systems like navigation, and it could be used over the sea since it is via satellite and not dependent on ground reception.

It has also got a commercial advantage for the airlines. By routing all calls through one of their machines on a plane they will be able to track and so charge for the calls.

Existing alternatives

There are devices already available but they haven't really caught on. The phones on the back of seats are expensive and barely used. Passengers understandably have a problem with using phones at a cost they cannot calculate easily.

Some long-distance flights operated by Lufthansa and JAL even have internet access which in theory could be adapted to take voice information (aka speech).

But the change has not been made and probably won't be until costs come down.


So the Federal Communications Commission is likely to start looking at ways for an alternative system to be developed.

There will no doubt be much public discussion and any change is likely to take some years.

Which is good news for those of us who don't like the cell-phone invasion.

A planeload of businessmen chattering away at 35,000 feet is not an attractive thought.

Developing the technology may be the easy bit. It will be much harder to devise rules to reconcile the desires of those who want to chat with those who want to meditate in silence.


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