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China decrees in-flight cellphone calls are safe

你好,我是在飞机上*

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Following two years of study, China has decided that in-flight calls are safe, but anyone hoping to make a call, or access the internet, on a Chinese flight will still be disappointed.

The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT, not to be confused with MIT) has spent two years studying the affects of in-flight wireless and, perhaps noting that Western flights aren't dropping from the sky, has decreed that making calls from airplanes is safe, as Sina Tech reports. However, the first Chinese airline to provide in-flight wireless has adopted a business model even more restrictive than what's on the ground.

No Chinese airline currently permits in-flight use of a mobile phone, even to access the existing Wi-Fi service which was launched by Air China on early notification of MIIT's announcement. That service is restricted to laptops and tablets, and only provides access to the on-board entertainment cache. The airline feels its passengers don't really want internet access at all, as it told Sina Tech (translation by the poly-lingual chaps at Penn Olson):

"We did an investigation, and as far as most travellers are concerned, connecting to the internet on a flight definitely isn’t travellers’ first choice; what’s more important to them is passing the time on their flight via exciting activities."

Air China passengers can talk to each other over the Wi-Fi intranet, so you can address messages about the screaming baby to the neighbouring seat number. Dealing with the inevitable backlash from the parents would certainly falls into the category of "exciting activities", but one can't help feeling that internet access could be equally entertaining.

Air China even has the chutzpah to point out that its Wi-Fi service is free, while others charge, without mentioning that those others do tend to connect users to the actual internet for their money.

Linking an airplane to the rest of the world is problematic. The easy way to do it is via a satellite, but that limits the bandwidth and makes what is available expensive. Direct air-to-ground links are better, but mean building some sort of wide-area cellular network allowing aircraft to hand off as they cross the skies. Several companies have attempted to build such a network covering the USA, but the simplicity of satellite always trumps their business models.

Chinese flyers will, eventually, get their flights interrupted by the person beside them calling to tell the world they're on a plane, but for the moment they can only share that information with those who are in exactly the same position. ®

* "Hello, I'm on the plane"

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