Virgin straps on phone masts for the flying upper classes
'HELLO? Hello darling, I'm on a Virgin- What? No..'
Flyers heading to New York on Virgin Atlantic will be able to make calls from the plane, thanks to a mobile mobile base station and a satellite uplink, but expect to pay through the nose for a service which hasn't proved popular elsewhere.
Only customers of O2 and Vodafone will be able to connect at all, and those will be billed at international roaming rates, but the airline is pushing the GPRS data and texting potential of the service rather than voice calling, as the latter will be restricted by the limited bandwidth available – and has proved surprisingly unpopular on other airlines.
Virgin is proudly calling itself "the first British airline to provide passengers with a service to make and receive phone calls", but Ryanair was the first one "operating from the UK" back in 2009. Ryanair saw mobile calls as another way to subsidise its unfeasibly low ticket prices, but it turned out no one was interested in making calls from the air, so the service was quietly dropped a year or two later.
Lufthansa has also flirted with in-flight calling, but has shelved the service despite fitting out a good number of its planes with the requisite hardware.
Connectivity has to be by satellite, which means a dish mounted (ideally) atop the plane. A traditional dish would obviously be something of a wind drag, but various technical solutions exist though none solve the problem of latency (the time it takes to bounce the signal off the satellite) and cost (satellites are getting cheaper, but are still epically expensive).
From an interfering-with-instruments point of view, having a base station on the plane is, ironically, safer than not. Phones are regularly left switched on in aircraft by accident, despite the dire warnings, and once in the air those handsets ratchet up their broadcast power in the hope of connecting to terrestrial base stations. If they succeed it just pisses off the mobile operator, as the handsets switch cells faster than the systems can cope with, and if they fail then they keep transmitting at full power in the hopes of connecting.
But a base station on the plane allows the handsets to transmit at very low power, reducing the already minimal chance of interference.
Virgin is fitting the new kit as part of its overhaul of the Upper Class cabins, which are getting USB charging sockets and touch-screen entertainment, so there's no telling how far back the signal will propagate. By the end of 2012 we're told that around 20 aircraft will have been fitted out, so we'll have to wait until then to find out if anyone's actually interested in keeping in touch from the air, and willing to pay to do so. ®
The equipment isn't now, nor has ever been, the problem.
The problem is the cost to the end-user. Just what are you intending to charge me for it? Because if it's expensive, I'll wait until I get off the plane. And most people run scared of roaming anyway - there's a reason for that that's nothing to do with worrying about using foreign airwaves or interfering with the plane, or the slight delay in voice traffic. It's simply the cost.
So every time you equip a plane, you're expecting people to fund its installation by using it and making you a proportion of profit after you've connected via a satellite and talked to a (now foreign) mobile operator to terminate your calls. And then you price it so extortionately that the only reason people REALLY turn their phones off on a plane is because they're scared they'll hit roaming charges while they're not looking.
Seriously, people. Sod all the fancy stuff. Let me send texts and browse the web. You can cache that locally, send it at your own leisure, don't care about slight interruptions, can route via the cheapest method transparently (wireless / 3G while on the ground, switch to satellite once high enough in the air) and not bother me with people shouting "HELLO!" down the phone while I'm trying to sleep. Then you can price it more sensibly and shock, horror, people might start to use it. While things are still priced in pounds per megabyte, nobody is going to EVER touch the service except by accident or curiosity.
Nothing else, absolutely nothing else, matters but the cost to the end-user. If you charge me 5p extra to send a text message that you then relay over some hugely-slow but viable link back to a base in the UK that then sends the text message onwards from there, that would be useful. If you let me have available-but-slow wifi, that's worth a couple of quid per flight, maybe, if I need it. Anything else and no matter how much a captive audience you have, nobody will touch it. Real-time voice just isn't necessary - we're only amusing ourselves until the plane lands when we THEN do all the important phone calls anyway. Give us the most basic of data services at a *decent* price and you'd have an audience.
Mobile networks need to realise that mass volume of customers * a couple of pence profit is infinitely better than no customers * huge wads of profit each. This applies to roaming, data, data roaming, and airplane use. Drop your prices, see a rise in profits. Increase the prices to these stupid amounts, see a continued absence of customers afraid to even turn their phones ON abroad and instead buying a foreign SIM, thus netting you 0p profit.
If the person sitting next to me....
Spends even a small part of the time on the phone, they'll find thenselves making their calls from OUTSIDE the plane
Oh hang on, only "Vice Presidents in charge of Sales" will be able to justify the calls on their expenses and they'll be up the front of the plane, so they won't bother me in cattle class.
RIP the last sanctuary from the mobile phone
Perhaps they'll have a phone section of the plane for the pariahs, a bit like the old smoking section?
No, make them all ring and ring with an automated message of "Turn off your phone you annoying w*nker!"