Speaking of using cellphones on flight.....
Far sooner than anyone anticipated, the cell-phone call has breached a technological wall and invaded what was literally the last place beyond its reach: the passenger compartment of an in-flight airliner.
OK, now that the alarm has been sounded, let's calm down and assess this startling news for its potentially beneficial portent. After all, many business travelers depend on cell phones. And maybe the small percentage of cell-phone users who drive the rest of us crazy will learn some manners as the strong reaction builds against cellular rudeness.
Virgin Atlantic Airways is the innovator (or perpetrator) of this development. Virgin says that it has become "the first airline to allow passengers to receive calls via their mobile phone number while in flight," using a new technology that routes incoming cellular calls to handsets at passengers' seats.
But this doesn't mean that cabins suddenly are going to be inundated with bellowing cell-phoners adding a new ring of torture to those cramped aircraft spaces. In fact, Virgin's new service, named Earth Calling, currently is available on only one airplane, a Boeing 747 that inaugurated the carrier's new direct service between London and New Delhi last week. And the service works only on cell phones using advanced GSM-type wireless service that is standard in Europe but not yet common in the United States.
"We launched it on just the one aircraft, but we have an aggressive retrofit plan" to modify the entire fleet to accommodate the technology, said David Tharp, director of in-flight entertainment for Virgin.
"It won't be disruptive to other passengers," said Sharon Pomerantz, a spokeswoman for Virgin. "There won't be phones ringing all over the plane."
Use existing handset
Instead, incoming calls ring quietly on passenger earphones or are announced in a text on in-seat video screens. To take a call, "you actually use the existing handset built into each seat," Tharp said. The cell phone itself remains off.
The system was developed by British Telecommunications under the brand name Mobile Connect. Basically, it takes a ground call and sends it to a satellite, where it then is beamed to an individual's cell-phone number on the plane, where "the handset acts as your mobile phone," Tharp said.
To receive calls, a passenger first must obtain a user card from his or her GSM service provider. The card is swiped through an armrest scanner that programs the system to retrieve calls coming in on the passenger's usual cell-phone number. Per-call costs "will not greatly exceed" those now in place for international GSM roaming, said British Telecommunications, which added that about 80 percent of European business travelers carry GSM phones. In the United States, only a fraction of cellular customers have GSM service. The new system circumvents worldwide prohibitions against using standard cell phones on in-flight aircraft because of some concerns that they could interfere with aircraft navigation systems. The prohibition, which is enforced on aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration, was instituted by the Federal Communications Commission in landmark 1981 regulations that reallocated certain radio frequencies to encourage growth and competition in the fledgling cellular industry.
Concerns about the potential for interference were important factors in the cell-phone prohibition, said William Adler, a former chief of the FCC mobile services division who helped to draft the regulations. But the main thrust of the regulations was to divide the cellular broadcast band in a way that let competing cellular providers in nonadjacent areas across the country use the same frequencies without overlapping signals, said Adler, who now is general counsel at Globalstar, a provider of mobile and satellite telephone services based in San Jose, Calif.
The same frequencies can be used simultaneously in different areas because a cell-phone signal from the ground does not wander much beyond its intended receiving station. But from an airplane 6 miles high, cell-phone signals reach the Earth in a wide cone that covers a big chunk of geography.
"The radio traffic-management system gets completely undermined," Adler said. "Potentially, with cellular calls from airplanes, you'd have dozens and dozens of base stations receiving your signal and getting confused." Among other things, billing for calls would become chaotic.
Other airlines considered
On-board cellular-call service, which British Telecommunications is marketing to other airlines besides Virgin, is just the most recent technological leap in a rapidly changing new era in which airline passengers ultimately will have not only personal cell-phone service but also e-mail and broadband Internet access.
But technology does not address the problem of bad cell-phone manners. Adler speculated that Americans in general are less accustomed than Europeans to ambient public noise and therefore more likely to speak unnecessarily loudly into a cell phone. He said the cellular industry should consider mounting a publicity campaign to promote the simple idea that it is not necessary to bellow into a cell phone.
Pomerantz at Virgin, meanwhile, has faith that on-board cellular calls will not become just one more annoyance in air travel. "Hopefully, people won't be shouting on the phones," she said. "You have to assume that your passengers are polite."
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