US tries to shoot down OnAir
Airbus mobile phone system takes flack
The CTIA has asked the US authorities to ban the use of systems like the Airbus-developed OnAir system, which makes it safe to use cellphones while flying, claiming that "currently no solution exists that safeguards terrestrial wireless services against interference".
The OnAir system is a joint European development with Airbus and SITA in the Netherlands, and uses a system - which has been well publicised in America - which limits the power of phones in-flight so that they can't reach cells on the ground.
Apparently, this technology hasn't reached the CTIA, which describes itself as "the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry, representing carriers, manufacturers and wireless Internet providers" but is predominantly a US lobbying body.
The body has filed comments in the Federal Communications Commission’s Wireless Use on Aircraft proceeding, examining whether existing rules should be modified in order to allow the use of wireless phones in airplanes. "In its filing," says the CTIA, it has "expressed concern about relaxing such restrictions and suggested the restrictions not be relaxed or removed unless and until it is demonstrated that such action would not cause harmful interference with existing terrestrial wireless services."
Steve Largent, President and CEO of CTIA commented: “While the industry recognizes the consumer demand for wireless service anytime, anywhere - even while airborne - we believe it is more important to ensure wireless networks on the ground, serving more than 182 million consumers, continue operating without interference."
The technique used by Airbus and SITA is a simple one. A micro-cell is placed inside the body of an aircraft to provide links to the wireless switched networks, in exactly the same way as a micro-cell works on the ground in areas of otherwise limited reception.
At the same time, OnAir uses a low-power background signal at cellular frequencies, which is less powerful than the micro-cell's signal, but strong enough to drown out any signal that might reach into the plane from the ground.
CTIA's concern is a valid one, if a system is operated without this precaution. A plane can easily give a phone user access to hundreds of cells on the ground simultaneously. If that happens, each cell will try to register the handset to itself, causing chaos in the switching network. The problem has nothing to do with the danger of radio interference to the electronics of the plane, but it is a serious problem for mobile network operators.
The system which OnAir is pioneering has dealt with the issue, so there could be some surprise in European comms circles when they discover that the CTIA believes that no solution exists that safeguards terrestrial wireless services against interference.
Inevitably, the suspicion will arise that the request to the FCC is designed to hold up the adoption of European-developed technology, while US suppliers reverse-engineer a solution which will allow American based airlines to "buy domestic" - a scandal which is not without precedent in US-Euro affairs.
It was the determination of American authorities to prevent a European airport radar system from being adopted before US electronics companies could develop a rival, which was blamed for a fatal accident at an Italian airport. There's no suggestion that a similarly tragic result could follow from the CTIA's press release, but there will be a perception by some that there is a potential commercial advantage to OnAir, which is being circumvented by lobbying.