Passengers could eventually access the internet and receive video in flight via their third-generation (3G) mobile telephones following the successful test of a broadband in-cabin base station.

Onboard base stations overcome the problem of avionics interference because telephone signal strength can be kept low.

In a 2h flight over Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, text messages and voice calls were transmitted and received via satellite link.

The in-cabin base station, also known as a picocell, had the broadband capability to deliver 3G telephone services.

The system is being developed by US digital communications company Qualcomm in co-operation with American Airlines, and uses Globalstar satellites.

Anticipated uses of the system include not only passenger internet access, but also crew communications and downlinking of aircraft data in flight.

"The picocell uses an internet protocol format for a range of uses. There is so much cost in air-to-ground via satellite you have to make as much use of that expensive pipe as possible," according to Qualcomm senior technology director and 3G picocell project leader Paul Guckian.

The company is talking to regulators about uses of the base station, and is aiming to create a system compatible with both US and European mobile telephone standards.

In a parallel development, US airborne communications company Aircell tested its own in-cabin base station earlier this month. The system provided data rates of 300-500kb/s in tests at various altitudes and airspeeds. This is equivalent to rates needed by a 3G phone.

Aircell's tests, using modified ground-based cellular stations and not satellites as the air-ground link were conducted over the Rocky Mountains. Initial airline testing is targeted for mid-2005.

Aircell plans to deploy modified cellular stations across the USA in the next two years.



Source: Flight International