In-flight Wi-Fi rivals pitch phone plans

Regulators permitting...

Boeing's Connexion and Airbus' OnAir this week both announced partnerships with mobile phone specialists to pave the way for in-flight GSM and CDMA device usage.

Connexion's partner is Qualcomm, and the pair said yesterday they have been testing cabin-fitted GSM and CDMA 2000 base-stations, which beam calls from the aircraft to the ground via satellite. The test base-stations come from UTStarcom.

Separately, though not, perhaps, coincidentally, OnAir yesterday said it was working with software partner TriaGnoSys and server maker Miltope to build much the same kind of system, though this time it's GSM-only. OnAir has already said it favours compact base-stations from Siemens.

OnAir and Connexion were both formed to equip aircraft with wireless networks for data, but with regulators in the European Committee of Posts and Telegraphs (CEPT) and the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) pondering and end to the current ban on the use of mobile phones during flights, the two rivals have moved quickly to develop phone services too.

Hurdles remain. While the FCC may well say mobile phone usage is fine, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), which has a say in the matter too, looks likely to reject calls for and end to the ban.

OnAir hopes to have its service up and running in time for it to be built into airliners during H1 2006. Connexion's version is likely to be made available in the same broad timeline. All it will say for now is that it is committed to showing the system is safe, with testing running through September 2005.

OnAir said its system has room to support up to 200 users concurrently making phone calls, sending text messages or surfing the web. Miltope's server ties in the Siemens GSM base-station with the WLAN access points. It's based on an Intel Pentium M processor - which may prove embarrassing after Intel last week publicly sided with Connexion.

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