Cell phones on planes may be heading for the US, but will anyone use them?

Foreign airlines might easily extend service on flights into the country if the FCC allows it

In-flight cellular in the U.S. may be closer to reality than some consumers realize, with foreign airlines poised to extend services they already offer elsewhere. But evidence from overseas suggests the odds of being trapped next to a chronic caller are slim.

At its monthly open meeting Thursday, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission will discuss whether to issue a proposal for legalizing small cellular base stations on airliners. Such a plan would be subject to public comment and wouldn't take effect until well into next year at the earliest. If enacted, it would end a decades-long ban that has preserved airline cabins as rare cell-free spaces. Yet based on reports from overseas, calls in the cabin might prove to be rare and brief.

Actually allowing voice calls in flight would be up to the airlines, and most U.S. airlines seem unlikely to do so, let alone invest in equipment to carry cellular voice or data. Most have Wi-Fi for data already. But foreign airlines that already offer cell service elsewhere could probably start allowing calls over U.S. airspace fairly soon if an FCC rule change takes place.

Pulling out a cellphone in the air and dialing up family and friends is already legal in many places outside the U.S. British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air France, KLM, Emirates, Aeroflot, Virgin Atlantic and other airlines offer cellular service, though some, including Lufthansa and Aer Lingus, prohibit voice calls. These in-flight services go through small, specialized cellular base stations installed on planes, which talk to the main cell network via satellites. The so-called picocells prevent interference with cell towers on the ground, which was the reason for the FCC's longtime ban.

In-flight cellular services typically are billed as international roaming, which carries a stiff premium. Partly because of cost, even passengers who can make cell calls on planes don't do it that much, according to an FAA report issued in July 2012. The agency surveyed aviation authorities in other countries about in-flight cellular in the early days of such services. Based on the few responses it got, airliners weren't bursting into a cacophony of one-sided conversations.

For example, France's aviation agency said about 2 percent of passengers used their phones for voice calls, while Jordan's said only about 10 percent of travelers used cellular at all. New Zealand authorities said there were 10 text messages sent for each minute of voice calling, and Brazil said an average of 0.3 passengers per flight leg made calls. The average length of those calls was 110 seconds.

There is "a huge demand" for cellular service on planes, according to Kevin Rogers, CEO of service provider AeroMobile. But he said 10 percent of passengers connecting up is about average for a flight. And both Rogers and Ian Dawkins, CEO of rival provider OnAir, press the point that voice calling is only a small part of that use.

On an average flight of an AeroMobile-equipped plane, there are five or six phone calls with a typical duration of 90 seconds to two minutes, Rogers said. More than 80 percent of those on the AeroMobile system use only text or data, he said. For OnAir, about 60 percent of activity is data use, 20 percent is texting and 10 percent is voice.

The cabin crew can turn off the voice capability of OnAir's system during quiet times, such as when most passengers are sleeping, Dawkins said in an email message. He claimed there has not been a single complaint about voice calls in the six years that OnAir Mobile has been operating.

Despite such assurances, U.S. airlines have shown little interest in voice calling, citing passengers' preferences. Even though VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) services such as Skype could run over the in-flight Wi-Fi widely available on U.S. airlines, none currently allow voice calls.

However, the first cellular calls in the air could come from another direction.

When foreign airlines fly cell-equipped planes over the U.S., they have to turn off the service even if it's available for the rest of the international journey. For example, passengers on a flight from London to Washington, D.C., are advised that their cellular voice and data service will be cut off for the last two to three hours of the trip as the plane flies over the U.S. East Coast, AeroMobile's Rogers said.

"It's frustrating for the passengers, it's frustrating for the cabin crew, and it's frustrating for us," Rogers said. OnAir's Dawkins takes a similar view.

If the FCC rule change is approved and does what it seems to propose, those foreign carriers will probably look to extend passengers' cell privileges to the U.S. portion of their flights as soon as possible, Rogers and Dawkins believe. The Federal Aviation Administration has already approved onboard picocells as safe for flying, and AeroMobile has permission to use its satellite spectrum in the U.S., Rogers said.

Virgin Atlantic, an AeroMobile customer, offers cellular on 17 of its planes and would like to be able to extend that service to the U.S., according to spokeswoman Olivia Gall.

Not surprisingly, Rogers thinks U.S. airlines also will adopt cellular. OnAir said it is in active discussions with several U.S. airlines.

U.S. airlines' deployments may come in two phases, first on long-haul international flights and later on domestic trips, Rogers said.

"Their international competitors are taking the view, almost without exception, that they want to put onboard full connectivity ... both Wi-Fi and mobile phone," Rogers said. While some passengers are willing to sign up and pay for Wi-Fi, others want the simplicity of simply turning on their phones and using them as usual, paying the cost as part of their regular monthly phone bill, he said.

Customers of at least one U.S. mobile operator can already use their phones in the air when traveling overseas where the service is allowed. AeroMobile has an international roaming agreement with AT&T. The carrier's discount packages for roaming in some foreign countries don't cover AeroMobile service, so voice calls cost $2.50 per minute, data costs $0.0195 per KB, and sending a text message costs $0.50.

Even within the U.S., it's likely that cell use on airliners would be treated as international roaming. That could make U.S. mobile operators wary about supporting cellular service on domestic flights, said analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. Consumers in Europe and Asia are more savvy about international roaming than most passengers on domestic U.S. flights, he said, so phone companies would have to be prepared to either warn subscribers carefully or field a lot of complaints.

"It's very difficult to explain to the average American that the moment they step on a plane, they're in a different country," Entner said. "I don't think the carrier will want to have any part of that. It sounds like a customer service nightmare."

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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