AirCell to demonstrate in-flight cell phone calls and WLAN access

* No down time on flights

Despite my best efforts to discourage this trend, it appears that airline passengers will be able to use their mobile phones, laptops and PDAs while on the plane.

Last week, AirCell (http://www.aircell.com) announced it will "begin conducting flight demonstrations with a prototype of a system that will allow commercial airline passengers to use their personal mobile phones and other wireless devices in flight over a broadband air-to-ground link."

The company said commercial deployment is targeted for 2006, and the company's AirCell Broadband System will incorporate an integrated wireless cabin connected to the ground over a dedicated terrestrial broadband air-to-ground link.

The company said its system will give airlines the ability to do rapid roll out of in-flight calling and other services, including e-mail, Internet, corporate VPNs and text messaging. The demonstration will occur on an AirCell-enabled private jet equipped with special antennas and electronics under an experimental license from the FCC, the company says.

AirCell plans to provide bandwidth of about 300K to 500K bit/sec, with peak bursts up to 3.1M bit/sec, which AirCell compares to a typical Wi-Fi hot spot. Phone calls will be allowed through a cabin Picocell, and laptops and PDAs will connect via 802.11b/g to a Cabin Telecommunications Router (CTR), AirCell says. In addition, an Iridium satellite link will provide global coverage for voice and low-speed data service when planes are outside the U.S. terrestrial coverage.

As I wrote earlier in this newsletter, I don't have a problem with providing in-flight wireless LAN Internet access so users can connect to the Internet to download e-mail or do other basic Web surfing. My big problem is letting users yak away on a cell phone for an entire coast-to-coast flight, as it's already bad enough when people are talking right up to the door being closed or turning on their cells right when the wheels of the plane hit the runway on landing.

Yes, there are other annoying things we face when we fly (screaming babies, drunks, etc.), but as other readers have pointed out, it seems like the plane is the last place where we can tune out the ubiquitous network that technology has granted us.

There is some good news - at a recent Network World Technology Tour event that I moderated, I met one of the engineers working for Connexion by Boeing (http://www.connexionbyboeing.com), which is currently providing the WLAN service on Lufthansa flights in Europe. I asked him whether people were making voice over Wi-Fi calls using the data service for voice, and he said that they noticed a big performance hit when someone tried to do that, so they ended up blocking the ports for that voice traffic. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope that people won't be able to make calls using VoIP over WLAN. I still believe that if someone wants to do something they'll find a way to do it, but at least for the moment I'm encouraged that it can't be done.

But in the end I'm afraid that the plane will be just as busy with wireless traffic as hotels and airports are, as the overriding factor in all of this is money, and we all know that the airline industry needs as much money as it can get. So if someone really needs to get their e-mail downloaded on a flight from Boston to L.A., and is willing to pay $25 for the right to use the WLAN connection, I'm pretty sure the airline is going to accept that over the complaints of someone like me who just wants peace and quiet.

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