Airlines Prepare for Cellphone Calling
Service Could Begin Next Year, Safety Remains an Issue
By SCOTT MCCARTNEY, The Wall Street Journal
Cell phone use on flights might become very common.
With technology and regulators moving rapidly, passengers could be making
and receiving cellphone calls aboard airline flights next year. But a new
study raises questions over whether that will be safe for airplanes.
The study arrives less than two months before crucial government decisions
about inflight wireless communications are set to be made. On May 10, the
Federal Communications Commission will auction radio spectrum that will
allow telecommunications companies to operate wireless Internet and
cellphone services for air travel. Already, several companies, including
Verizon Communications Inc., AirCell, a closely held Colorado company, and
AeroMobile, a joint venture of ARINC Inc. and Telenor ASA, are lining up to
bid. The FAA recently approved a Verizon Wi-Fi system that lets laptops
connect to the Internet from airplanes. (If Verizon wins spectrum at the May
10 auction, the company says the system could be up and running in 2007.)
Some companies are also unveiling new technology they say will make inflight
calling less disruptive and safer.
The problem with using cellphones on airplanes is that the devices can
interfere with Global Positioning Satellite systems, researchers say. These
systems are increasingly being used on commercial airplanes for navigation.
Interference could cause an airplane to lose the GPS signal or even make a
flight veer off course. Currently, federal rules prohibit the use of
personal electronic devices onboard airplanes unless airlines can prove they
are safe to operate.
In the new study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University rode 37
passenger flights on three airlines with a device that measured
radio-frequency emissions from personal electronic devices, like cellphones,
BlackBerries and laptop computers. The study found emissions from cellphones
that could interfere with GPS systems. It also revealed that some fliers are
already making phone calls in defiance of an industrywide ban: Indeed, one
to four cell calls were surreptitiously made on each flight studied.
Inflight cellular calls cause other problems, too. Since calling from high
up in the air can tie up a big chunk of capacity, wireless users on the
ground can be blocked from service. The FCC had banned cellphone use on
planes because of this problem.
But now communications companies are unrolling new technology to address
that issue. Some companies are preparing to equip airplanes with "pico cell"
cellular antennas that will allow as many as 100 cellphones at a time to
work without disrupting cell service on the ground. Since pico cells are
installed on airplanes are thereby close to the cellphones of passengers,
the phones operate at low power and won't produce interference with
instruments, companies say.
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Because of the pico-cell technology, which has been successfully
demonstrated with calls to and from an American Airlines flight and Boeing's
recent long-distance record-setting 777 trip, the FCC has dropped its
objection to using cellphones on airplanes.
Now the Federal Aviation Administration must make its own decision. The
agency has deputized a nonprofit advisory group called the RTCA Inc. to
study the use of personal electronic devices aboard airplanes and to
recommend policy, and the RTCA expects to issue a final report in December.
The report will likely outline specific procedures for companies and
airlines to prove that devices are safe to use, said Dave Carson, co-chair
of the RTCA committee and a Boeing Co. official.
Both the Wi-Fi network and the cell service will use radio spectrum that the
FCC will auction on May 10 for air-to-ground communications. The spectrum
had been reserved for telephones installed on airplanes. But since those
expensive, static-filled phones never took off, the FCC decided to
reallocate it. Two licenses will be awarded, FCC spokeswoman Chelsea Fallon
But the researchers at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh say they believe more
study is needed before allowing inflight cellphone calls. The researchers
found that even though cellphones and laptops communicate in radio bands
that are separate from those used by GPS instruments, emissions were still
found in the GPS spectrum. That is because emissions from several cellphones
can mix together and migrate to different frequencies, a phenomenon that is
"There is a clear and present danger: cellphones can render GPS instruments
useless for landings," the authors said in an article published in IEEE
Spectrum. Carnegie Mellon's research was funded by the FAA.
Mr. Carson said the RTCA is looking at intermodulation and the Carnegie
Mellon results. The university research "does lend some empirical support to
what we knew from the beginning," he said. The RTCA has also found evidence
of possible GPS receiver interference. But the committee also believes
technical dangers can be overcome, he said.
One certainty: Phone use, like use of computers and other electronic
devices, will only be allowed when planes are above 10,000 feet, and will be
prohibited during takeoff and landing.
Sometime within the next year, airlines will likely being training flight
attendants on how to instruct passengers on proper seat chatter procedures
With the background noise of an airplane in one ear, users tend to talk
loudly into a cellphone. But yelling only makes the transmission worse (and
neighbors angry), experts say, and phones don't pick up loud voices clearly.
(Headphones may help.)
Do travelers really want to gab inflight? Of 8,000 comments to the FCC when
it proposed dropping its ban, only two or three were in favor. The rest,
except for the 50 or so technical reports, were from travelers vociferously
opposed, arguing that airplanes should be a refuge from calls and emails.
Flight attendant unions are also opposed, fearing obnoxious phone habits
could lead to air-rage incidents.
If cellphones are allowed on airplanes, Granger Morgan, head of Carnegie
Mellon's department of engineering and public policy, would like to see one
other change: Flight-data recorders to track electronic emissions should be
modified so that crash investigators can document a problem if trouble