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Sat 30 Sep 2006 04:00 PM

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It's good to talk

In-flight entertainment is a growing market and onboard mobile phone usage and broadband internet will soon be widely available, but do passengers really want to pay for it? Barbara Cockburn investigates.

It seems only a matter of time before onboard mobile phone use gets the goahead from the world's civil aerospace regulators, forever changing the onboard environment on aircraft.

AeroMobile, a joint venture between Arinc and Telenor, estimates that up to 20 aircraft will be flying with its system by the year-end as the quest to enable passengers to use their mobile phones inflight takes off.

Aeromobile has been has been at the forefront of the campaign to develop solutions that will enable the use of mobile phones on board aircraft.

The main challenge has been to secure regulatory approval and certification from aviation authorities.

To this end, the challenge has been developing a system that can demonstrate that power emitted from the phones on board, which can be controlled and suppressed by an on-board picocell, do not interfere with terrestrial telecom networks or the avionics on board the aircraft.

Speaking during the Aircraft Interiors exhibition in Hamburg this year, AeroMobile president, Graham Lake, commented:

“We do remain on track with the regulatory work and are encouraged by what we are seeing there.”

Lake says AeroMobile is now working with three undisclosed carriers in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions.

Two of these carriers are planning fleet-wide deployment on long-haul aircraft, while the other will start a service trial with a view to fleet deployment.

AeroMobile expects two of these carriers to be operational with the system this year.

It is believed Emirates will become the first commercial carrier to offer the AeroMobile service.

The United Arab Emirates has already given initial regulatory approval for trials of mobile phone usage, and UAE-registered aircraft will be able to fly globally on that authority.

Emirates, confirms the carrier is examining on-board mobile phone use, but has made clear it wants to see whether too many incoming calls could disturb passengers and whether a surge of calls could disrupt the aircraft's avionics systems.

The carrier also wants to know whether it is possible to bar incoming calls while allowing outgoing calls.

“To some extent, the timing of this is going to depend on the issue of the supplementary type certificate,” says Lake.

“We do need approval from the state of registry of the aircraft,” he adds, noting this is in progress.

The regulatory solution will involve putting together a series of national agreements to permit the service.

During the early days of the service, while this network is being put together, Lake suggests deployments are likely to emerge on routes requiring few national approvals.

“International over-water routes are likely to see the service first,” he says.

Lake adds that up to 20 aircraft could be in service by the year-end and more than 100 by the end of 2007.

In addition to the three carriers with which it is already working, AeroMobile expects a fourth airline - a European carrier deploying the service on short-haul aircraft - to implement the service next year.

Ryanair is known to be looking at mobile phone usage.

“What we have seen in the last six months, and in particular since the start of 2006, is the pro-active interest in AeroMobile by telecom operators.

They have been coming to us,” says Lake.

“This shows they are thinking about making sure they can provide these services for their customers.”

AeroMobile has teamed up with Panasonic Avionics to offer its system, as part of the latter's IFE system.

Earlier this year, AeroMobile signed a technical services agreement with Boeing allowing its system to be offered as an airlinespecified line-fit option for all current Boeing aircraft.

AeroMobile has been working with the US manufacturer for the last year after its system was among the cabin features showcased on last year's Boeing 777- 200LR demonstration tour.

Following this co-operation, AeroMobile and Boeing began talks last summer exploring the feasibility of linefitting the in-flight mobile phone solution on new aircraft.

“The agreement means that AeroMobile has now entered phase two of the Boeing technical services agreement process, which finalises the technical details for the installation and results of AeroMobile being placed on the official Boeing options catalogue,” Arinc says of the agreement.

The first Boeing aircraft type to have the AeroMobile option will be the 777.

Aeromobile's Lake said in Hamburg:

“This is a very significant step.

It's the conclusion of a lot of work over the last 12 months.

It gives airlines the option they need to specify and have AeroMobile installed when their aircraft are manufactured.”

He adds that, as a result of its work on the 777, the company has “a lot experience with Boeing and getting the system flying on their aircraft.”

Also expecting regulatory approval in the not so distant future is OnAir, a SITAled joint venture that provides in-flight mobile telephone service.

OnAir said in early August that it expects to announce three more airline participants over the next two months, following Air France, BMI and TAP Portugal's commitment to carry out trials early next year.

OnAir has yet to break into the Middle East market, although it is creating a critical mass in and across Europe.

Speaking during a briefing updating progress in securing the necessary regulatory approval — OnAir CEO George Cooper said the company is set to announce three more airline commitments.

All of them will cover European short-haul operations.

“The industry now thinks this is not 'if' but 'when'.

Once you accept that's the position, you want to be first,” says Cooper.

“Now there is intense pressure on us to make that happen sooner rather than later.”

OnAir is initially focusing on the shorthaul market in Europe.

Its offering comprises an on-board picocell to control and suppress signals from mobile phones and will operate over the Inmarsat satcom network.

As opposed to the high price levels seen when seat and bulkhead-mounted phones were introduced in the 1990s, pricing of the mobile service has always been envisaged as being on a par with international roaming rates.

Indeed service providers have factored in price decreases to reflect likely falls in the price of terrestrial roaming rates.

“[Our research shows that] between US$1-3 a minute, you've got an increasing propensity to use it as the price decreases,” says Cooper.

“We're going to start services around US$2.30-US$2.50 a minute.

That rate will come down eventually to US$1.50 a minute in the fifth year.

“It is conceivable it could come down more. [But] there are clearly some intrinsic costs.

Our belief, and the [research] results back it up, is that people understand that.”

France-based manufacturer Thales said at this year's Farnborough Air Show that it has delivered the first laboratory unit of its new TopFlight Satcom avionics to Airbus, ahead of next year's trials.

Thales' TopFlight Satcom avionics comprise a satcom unit, an on-board router and a pico net — the technology being used to suppress power emissions from on-board mobile phones to ensure they does not interfere with aircraft equipment.

OnAir picked Thales last September to provide the on-board avionics to support its service to enable passengers to use their mobile phone and PDAs on board aircraft.

Speaking at a press briefing during the Farnborough air show, Thales Avionics commercial aerospace business vice president Rainer Koll, said the company has just delivered the first lab unit to Airbus.

At under a year, he says this represents a particularly rapid development time for the product.

Airworthiness certification will follow by the year-end, in time for the planned start of in-flight trials in the first quarter.

The next step will see capability expanded to support flight-deck operations in 2008.

Thales UK Aerospace managing director Richard Deakin says: “To be part of a key step forward in the aerospace industry through providing nextgeneration services to airline customers is proof that our technology continues to push the boundaries of what is possible.

“Passengers have been asking for mobile voice and data access on aircraft for years.

This programme finally answers that call.”

Elsewhere, Star Navigation is developing a system for onboard mobile use for India's SpiceJet, which is due to be followed by the launch of a worldwide sales and marketing effort to the airline industry.

AR Aviation, a business jet operator in India, also intends to purchase the system once SpiceJet has the system in operation and the worldwide sales push is launched.

“We are delighted that we have SpiceJet as our partner in this co-launch.

When one considers that India has a population in excess of 1 billion, and cell phone use is estimated at 56 million users rising to 95 million this year alone; the scope and magnitude of this particular opportunity for Star Navigation is simply tremendous,” says Star Navigation chairman and CEO Viraf Kapadia in the company statement.

While mobile phone usage may be just around the corner, a sign that IFE can be a tough proving ground was shown by the decision by airframe manufacturing giant Boeing to ditch its Connexion by Boeing product earlier this year.

The US manufacturer halted all sales of the in-flight broadband connectivity service in June as it examined the unit's viability.

Boeing latter said that following completion of a “detailed business and market analysis” of its Connexion by Boeing unit, it has decided to end its involvement in the broadband sector.

It adds that it will work with customers “to facilitate an orderly phase out” of Connexion.

The broadband connectivity services enables passengers to access a range of applications, including Internet, e-mail and live broadcast via their laptops onboard the aircraft.

The service went live during commercial trials in 2003 and was formally launched by Lufthansa the following year.

There are currently 11 airlines flying with the Connexion service onboard.

“Over the last six years, we have invested substantial time, resources and technology in Connexion by Boeing,” says Boeing chairman, president and CEO Jim McNerney in a statement.

“Regrettably, the market for this service has not materialised as had been expected.”

He adds that the decision “balances the long-term interests of all parties with a stake in Connexion by Boeing”.

There has always been a debate in the industry over how much customers are willing to spend and whether airlines can get a reasonable return for their investment.

With mobile phone technology, the industry is taking a cautious approach.

What is clear is that it is only a matter of time before the technology becomes widely available.

It is then for airlines to decide, perhaps through passenger feedback, how it can be adopted without annoying their passengers, and at the right price point as to allow the trial anduse of the technology in the short-term.

“AeroMobile has now entered phase two of the Boeing technical services agreement process, which finalises the technical details for the installation and results of AeroMobile being placed on the official Boeing options catalogue”
“The industry now thinks this is not 'if' but 'when'.
“When one considers that India has a population in excess of 1 billion, and cell phone use is estimated at 56 million users rising to 95 million this year alone; the scope and magnitude of this particular opportunity for Star Navigation is simply tremendous”

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