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In-flight calling given lukewarm reception

'It sounds like I'm talking to a small robot'

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Air France has started to allow passengers to make voice calls on its flights, though the first passengers are unimpressed by the quality of the service.

OnAir's service works by having a low-power base station on the plane to connect calls via satellite. This means calls suffer the lag associated with satellite communications, and are limited - at the moment only six can be made simultaneously.

Connecting calls over a satellite is easy enough. The clever bit is keeping signalling to a minimum. Mobile phones constantly communicate with their home network even when not involved in a call, and if those communications were all routed over the expensive satellite link then the system would quickly become uneconomical. So the on-plane base station can also pretend to be the home network, only using the satellite connection when really necessary - such as when a mobile is switched on in the plane.

The New York Times reports that Air France passengers were able to make calls, though most had to make a couple of attempts and incoming calls failed to connect at all.

But even when a call was connected the quality was far from ideal, with one passenger being told: "It sounds like I'm talking to a small robot" - which is a concern as bad sound quality may result in passengers raising their voices, and thus generating exactly the kind of nuisance that has prompted Lufthansa to say it won't be deploying the technology.

No such concerns at Ryanair. The cheap flight specialist's head of communications says: "We are not concerned about the noise because our cabins have never been quiet places. People are constantly coming up and down the aisles selling scratch cards or food and we believe there is a market for this." ®

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