|Copyright USA Today Information
Network Jul 20, 2004
Business travel; Every Tuesday
The race is on to enable airline
passengers to make and receive cellphone calls in
Cellphone company Qualcomm has teamed
with American Airlines 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 cellphones. 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 cellphones 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 service on American -- the
service was a hit early on. But as cellphones 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
"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 cellphones 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 cellphone 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 cellphones, laptops or handheld devices.
It says research suggests that revenue from
air-to-ground and ground- to-air communications could
top $8 billion by 2007.
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 capacity.
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 Afghanistan.
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 be."
Ultimately, Garton says, the success of
in-flight cellphones 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
|GRAPHIC, Color, Frank Pompa, USA