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Ryanair passengers will soon be able to make and receive GSM phone calls in the air.

The budget airline has teamed up with OnAir to equip its entire fleet with the technology by the middle of 2008. It will be the first airline to be completely GSM-enabled.

Ryanair joins bmi, who will be offering the capability on selected routes by the end of 2006, and Air France, who will be trialling the system in 2007.

The system operates by having a GSM picocell located on the plane. GSM handsets adjust their output power depending on their proximity to the nearest cell so, by having a cell onboard, the output power is kept to a minimum, vastly reducing any potential risk of interference with aircraft instruments.

From the picocell the connection is over a satellite link, which will introduce an unavoidable latency. Voice and SMS should work acceptably and most GPRS applications including email and web surfing, but no World of Warcraft over the Atlantic. The system is also GSM and GPRS only, no 3G.

Planes are, for the moment, relative islands of escape from the ever-present mobile, but according to OnAir "research has shown that concern over noise related to mobile phone usage is ranked lower than a baby crying or a passenger snoring loudly".

"Solutions include passengers turning phones to silent mode (i.e. no ringing or beeping) onboard aircraft; [or] cabin crew switching the system to 'tap not talk' mode (i.e. SMS and GPRS only) during quiet phases of flight."

The big question is how much these services are going to cost. No one is being drawn into estimates yet, other than to say it will be comparable with current international roaming. Though if that means before or after the EU-mandated capping of such charges remains to be seen. ®

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