European group to test plane mobile phone service

The rivalry between two of the world’s largest mobile phone technology groups, which began on the ground, could soon extend to the sky.

Over the next few months, a European consortium calling itself the Wireless Cabin plans to test a new service that will allow airline passengers to make calls on flights with mobile phones based on the widely deployed Global Service for Mobile Communications (GSM) technology, according to a consortium member.

The test will follow a similar in-flight telephony trial based on rival Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, which was conducted by American Airlines Inc. and Qualcomm Inc. last month in the U.S.

The Wireless Cabin began in August 2002 as a collaboration between several European equipment manufacturers and research institutes, including Airbus Deutschland GmbH, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Inmarsat Ltd., Siemens AG and Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson. Its goal: to provide airline passengers and crew members with several wireless services, including mobile phone telephony, broadband wireless LAN (WLAN) and short-range Bluetooth.

The technologies of choice for the in-flight mobile phone service are circuit-switched GSM and packet-switched Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), the third-generation (3G) technology supported by GSM operators and equipment manufacturers.

The Wireless Cabin consortium plans to test the mobile phone service as well as WLAN and Bluetooth services in an Airbus plane “this year,” said Josef Kolbinger, business director of Siemens’ GSM radio infrastructure unit, which is supplying wireless access equipment for the project. Kolbinger declined to provide a specific date.

Axel Jahn, manager of the Wireless Cabin project at the German Aerospace Center, also refused to name a date, saying only that a trial was planned in the near future. He, too, declined to comment on the research group’s progress.

The successful CDMA-based trial conducted in August by American Airlines and Qualcomm, the pioneer of CDMA technology, could be the reason why the Europeans are being so tight-lipped about a project they heavily promoted two years ago.

The American Airlines-Qualcomm test was approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), two agencies that still prohibit the use of wireless phones on flights. The trial was aimed at easing their concerns over the possibility of mobile phones generating radiation that could disrupt a plane’s on-board navigational equipment.

Radiation is also one of several key issues being addressed by the Wireless Cabin project, according to Siemens’ Kolbinger. Other issues include power supply, device sturdiness and size, and quality of service. Kolbinger said he doesn’t expect to see a commercial in-flight mobile phone service launched based on the group’s research before the end of 2005. “There’s still plenty of development work to be done,” he said.

That timeline, of course, will hinge on whether both the GSM and CDMA technology groups convince the FAA and FCC to soften their stance against mobile phones in flight.

Should the agencies give the green light, the market for in-flight mobile phone service could boom, according to Emma McClune, wireless analyst with Current Analysis Inc. “There’s definitely a business,” she said.

“Airlines have a very captive audience. Many of their passengers will want to use the time to make calls and check e-mail.” They may, indeed, provided, of course, their phones are compatible with the airline’s choice of wireless technology.

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