Inflight mobile providers see opportunities if US cell rules changed

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The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s possible move to lift a ban of cellular networks in flight would lead to more connectivity choices for passengers and open ancillary revenue opportunities for airlines, say connectivity providers OnAir and AeroMobile.

The suppliers show strong support for a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that would allow cellular phone usage above 10,000ft, which commissioners will consider implementing during a 12 December meeting according to a tentative agenda released on 21 November.

OnAir and Panasonic Avionics subsidiary AeroMobile both provide mobile services like voice calls and texting to airlines with routes to US cities. However those providers are required to turn off the system once the aircraft reaches US airspace to comply with the FCC rules, which prohibit the use of cellular phones’ 800MHz frequency onboard aircraft.

The proposed rule has not been unveiled to the public yet, and how the international aircraft coming to the USA with the technology would be treated under any such action is unclear. However, Geneva-based OnAir sees the rule opening up possibilities for foreign aircraft to continue these services once reaching the USA.

In a release, the connectivity provider says the NPRM would be “opening the way for repeal of the current ban with authority to use frequencies on a secondary, non-interference basis, over all U.S. and international mobile communications bands, as well as the mutual recognition of systems operating on foreign-flagged aircraft meeting equivalent technical standards.”

OnAir provides mobile services to 18 airlines, including British Airways, Qatar Airways, Philippine Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Aeroflot.

UK-based AeroMobile says that several of the 170 aircraft connected with its in-flight mobile service reach the USA today, including Virgin Atlantic flights from London Gatwick as well as flights from Aer Lingus, Emirates, Etihad and Lufthansa. A lift of the ban would have positive effects for these airlines and others that want to provide mobile services in the USA, says the firm's chief executive Kevin Rogers in a statement.

“The [NPRM] is also great news for our current airline partners,” he says. “As well as offering an improved service, extending coverage to the United States means increased ancillary revenues for those airlines that offer mobile connectivity,” he says. ”And it’s good news for U.S. airlines, potentially enabling them to provide the same levels of onboard connectivity as their international competitors,” adds Rogers.

Usage data shows that when given a choice between wi-fi and mobile services, most passengers opt to use the latter, OnAir chief Ian Dawkins says.

“It is no surprise that inflight usage mirrors terrestrial usage. And because it is so simple – just turn on your phone and use it – around 80 per cent of passengers choose the GSM network when both GSM and Wi-Fi are available,” says Dawkins in a release.

Time will tell whether US carriers opt to implement the mobile services domestically if given the chance to do so. Gogo, which has a majority of the market share in the US for wi-fi services, says its new Text & Talk product could be introduced in the market as soon as early 2014 if a carrier opts to enable it.

The Text & Talk product is unique in that is based on wi-fi technology rather than picocells, which are traditionally used to give aircraft mobile services. Picocells’ use in the USA would require the FCC to change the rules, whereas Gogo’s product does not require a separate approval.

US airlines’ reception to enabling voice calls on flights will also be a topic the industry is watching in coming months. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) released a statement after the FCC announcement saying that it opposed changes to allow for more in-flight phone due to concerns about it creating a loud cabin environment.

OnAir says that voice calls only make up a little more than 10% of total usage of its service and can be turned off by the airline if needed.

A recent survey of Delta Air Lines’ frequent fliers showed that 64% of passengers thought making phone calls in flight would have a negative impact on their onboard experience. The airline took the position that voice calls should be limited only to ground operations for this reason which was outlined in a submission to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) as part of the separate process of updating the Federal Aviation Administration’s guidance for portable electronic devices.