In-Flight Cell Phone Service Looms on Horizon

Depending on how you look at it, in-flight mobile phone service will either be the scourge or liberator of business travelers around the world.
Many travelers find flying to be an oasis away from the daily grind of the modern world. When you're 20,000 to 30,000 feet above land or sea, no one can reach you to request that latest report or shoot the breeze.

Yet with Wi-Fi starting to climb aboard airplanes, it is only a matter of time before a more common form of wireless technology takes to the friendly skies as well -- cellular communications.

Now we don't mean the expensive-to-use air-phones that have become standard features of air travel over the years. What we're talking about is the ability to use your cell phone, smartphone or mail phone when in the air for voice and data services.

With this capability will come the freedom to make a phone call whenever you like. It also will close the door on one of the last vestiges of tranquility available to many of us.

Two companies awaiting the go ahead to connect mobile handsets in the air to people on the ground are Telenor and ARINC. With their joint solution, users can make phone in-flight GSM phone calls and send and recieve text messages as if they were roaming in another country.

So while many flyers think of air travel as existing, for a period, in another world, to these two companies flying above Dublin, Ohio should be no different than sitting in a pub in Dublin, Ireland -- at least when it comes to making a phone call.

Not surprisingly, Telenor and ARINC recently sponsored a survey of international business fliers to see if they liked the idea of using mobile phones in flight. IMDC (Inflight Management Development Centre), an independent U.K. company, gave the survey to travelers passing through two of the world's busiest airports: London Heathrow and Gatwick.

The survey found that nearly half of the 1,200 respondents would prefer to travel on airlines that allow the use of mobile phones. ARINC VP & Managing Director Graham Lake enthused, ''Our research shows a pent-up passenger demand for in-flight mobile service.''

Whether you can say demand is pent up or not is open to debate. Nevertheless, 50 percent of respondents indicating a preference for in-flight phone service is not a resounding confirmation for the idea.

Should there come at time when airlines are ready to offer cellular service, however, ARINC and Telenor will be ready to deliver it to them. In fact, according to the companies, many planes could be readily equipped with in-flight GSM service because more than 1,900 of them already have the Inmarsat hardware required.

ARINC and Telenor plan to demonstrate their in-flight GSM solution to airlines at the World Airline Entertainment Association 2004 convention next week.

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