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Intel backs in-flight Wi-Fi initiative

Chocks away for the mile-high wireless club

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An initiative supported by Intel is in the final stages of outlining a method to disable the radio transmitters of handheld devices during aircraft takeoff and landing. The development should help pave the way to greater freedom to use wireless-enabled mobile devices while in the air.

The work has been carried out by RTCA, a non-profit organization that advises the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on communications technologies. The body also intends to define a universal symbol that can be used by mobile device manufacturers to indicate compliance. This may display onscreen or elsewhere when activated.

The use of the symbol should aid flight attendants assessing the risk wireless devices present to aircraft control and communications systems. Many airlines take a dim view of today's crop of mobile computing devices. This is especially so where they also function as mobile phones which may be barred from use during flight, despite the fact that many such devices allow the radio to be disabled if required.

Radio interference is considered a risk to essential control systems, especially when a plane is flying below around 10,000 feet, primarily during takeoff and landing. The low altitude leaves little time to correct problems or initiate backup systems if any interference from the devices affects control systems.

"The way you need to think about what we're doing is that we're defining the master circuit breaker [for wireless devices]," Jeff Schiffer, manager of wireless research communications and interconnect technology with Intel and a prime mover in the RTCA's working group, told ComputerWire.

Airlines such as Lufthansa already offer inflight Wi-Fi access on some routes, typically powered by the Connexion system from aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

However, the importance of two-way communication onboard aircraft is growing, with the ability to enable wireless access in-flight extending beyond WiFi access and into applications such as Bluetooth-enabled network gaming. While Mr Schiffer is aware that the efforts will not completely stop the risk to airplanes from wireless devices, he is convinced the work marks an important step forward in improving safety.

Source: ComputerWire/Datamonitor

Related research: Datamonitor, "MarketWatch: Telecoms Annual Subscription"

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