In-flight mobile phone services set to take off this year

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After several years in the pipeline, this year finally sees the roll-out of services supporting the use of mobile phones and GPRS-devices such as BlackBerrys by passengers in flight.

On top of trials with Qantas and Air France, mobile connectivity providers AeroMobile and OnAir are in the process of beginning services on respective launch customers Emirates and Ryanair. A string of installations on further airlines are expected during 2008.

It has been a lengthy journey. Enabling passengers to use their own mobile phones onboard has long been seen as the holy grail for an industry where in-seat phones failed to generate hoped-for revenues in the 1990s.

Moves to enable passengers to use their mobile phones onboard have been under discussion since the start of the decade.

 
 © OnAir

The hurdles have been many. These have not so much been technical - the use of picocell technology has readily been available to ensure power emitted from phones does not interfere with onboard avionics.

The bigger challenge has been navigating the necessary aeronautical certification and telecom regulatory landscape to support the services, alongside work to reach the necessary roaming agreements with all the mobile phone operators.

These processes have taken longer than expected. Providers and airlines have had to wait while the telecoms regulatory and aeronautical certification processes run their course, and projected timelines for launch of services have slipped as a result.

Commercial Trial

But for OnAir - the SITA-led venture with Airbus - and the Arinc/Telenor joint venture AeroMobile the first fruits are being seen.

The first OnAir services, supported by Inmarsat's new SwiftBroadband satcom network, began flying at the end of last year on a six-month, single aircraft trial for Air France. Under the trial an Airbus A318 operating across a variety of short-haul routes has been supporting data services - text messaging or e-mails. This is due to be later expanded to include voice calls.

"The trial is not a technology trial, it is a commercial trial," says OnAir chief executive Benoit Debains. While he will not be drawn on specific results, Debains says: "We have seen a lot of enthusiasm from the passengers." Further trials will follow shortly on European short-haul carriers TAP Portugal and BMI.

Launch customer for the OnAir service, Ryanair, is set to go live around the middle of the year - initially on 25 Boeing 737s. The project has been awaiting approval from UK telecoms regulator Ofcom - which was granted on 26 March following completion of a consultation process - to secure the necessary regulatory approval as Ryanair plans to initially deploy the service on London Stansted-based aircraft.

"We [have] all [been] waiting for the UK regulatory approval and because Ryanair wants to start with a fleet of 25 aircraft," says Debains. "Then by July/August we should have Shenzhen Airlines. There we have a simple deadline, the Olympic Games," he says. The Chinese carrier wants to have the service up and running on a couple of aircraft to operate domestic flights in time for the games in Beijing.

Other customers so far announced by OnAir include India's Kingfisher Airlines, Malaysia's AirAsia and AirAsia X and Royal Jordanian Airlines.

Meanwhile. the long-awaited start of AeroMobile's GSM services on launch customer Emirates finally took place in March - enabling the Middle Eastern carrier to lay claim to the first authorised in-flight mobile phone call on a commercial service. The first call took place on an Airbus A340-300-operated flight from Dubai to Casablanca.

 
 © SilverWingPix/airteamimages.com

The service was launched after receiving final approvals from the European Aviation Safety Authority and the United Arab Emirates' General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) for the Emirates service. Work will now begin on rolling out the service across its long-haul fleet of Boeing 777s and Airbus widebodies. Installations will be tied into scheduled maintenance for the aircraft.

This builds on last year's trial of the AeroMobile service, initially supported by Inmarsat's classic and Swift64 satcom services, onboard a domestic Qantas Boeing 767 last year. The three-month trial of data services was ultimately extended to nine months and AeroMobile director of marketing services David Coiley says this triggered market interest.

"We currently have nine aircraft operator commitments - some which we have announced including Emirates, Qantas and Turkish Airlines," he says. These also include Saudi Arabian Airlines.

"At Aircraft Interiors [exhibition to be held in Hamburg from 1-3 April] we will be announcing further details about new projects and customer announcements," he adds.

Other carriers have also outlined their intention to enable mobile phone use onboard, such as Kuwait budget operator Jazeera Airways and Scandinavian budget carrier Norwegian - the latter as part of a wider telecoms initiative which has seen it establish a dedicated mobile telecoms subsidiary.

The lengthy development time for the service has seen the prominence of data services on mobile devices become increasingly widespread over this period.

Coiley believes the growth of GPRS "push email" services - most notably through BlackBerrys - have helped provide business travellers with an easier way to say in touch with the office. "GPRS services are something that has become much more viable," he says. "It reduces the need for VPN [virtual private network] connectivity. It keeps people in touch without using [higher] bandwidth services.

"GPRS is very relevant. But we must look at how it is used on the ground. Voice is still very important. A couple of years ago around 90% of cellular phone use was voice. That is reducing slightly, but is still in excess of 75-80%. So we see no reason why that won't carry on across the in-flight environment."

Data Service

Deboins also sees data service playing a key role, especially for carriers looking to use it as a service differentiator. "On the data side we see airlines thinking about the kind of service they want to offer. Data will happen and I think it will be one of the things [airlines] have to offer. I think people see voice as more of a way to generate revenues and data as more of a service."

Alongside regulatory and certification hurdles, there has also been debate about the impact passengers using their phones would have on the cabin environment. This revolved around fears that passengers would be put off by a cabin full people talking on the phone and by irritating ring tones.

The service providers have consistently countered that airlines can control how they deploy the service - they are able to switch off voice capability or incoming calls at various modes of flight. On Emirates, the airline is asking passengers to switch their phones to silent mode.

"The market and industry has become much more mature and balanced in what is going on," says Coiley. "You won't have everybody yakking on the plane," he says, noting likely roaming rates at around $4 a minute - a sharp improvement on in-seat services where price proved a major obstacle to use - would still be likely to reduce idle chatter.

After the long wait providers believe market interest is growing and expect a further pick-up once the first services are offered.