Despite yesterday’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision not to lift a ban on cellphone use on airliners, Louisville’s AirCell LLC is still hoping to offer in-flight cellphone service in the not-too-distant future.
In a Wall Street Journal article yesterday, AirCell’s CEO Jack Blumenstein says that U.S. airlines should soon begin offering in-flight Internet service, instant messaging and wireless email. And while government approval of cellphone service is now stalled, “the likelihood of cellphone service on airplanes coming into play is still very high,” he says.
Privately held AirCell, founded in 1991, paid $31.3 million at an FCC auction last June for three megahertz of radio frequency spectrum to be used for in-flight Internet service. Both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have approved the company’s Internet service, but not its propsed cellphone service.
The FAA reportedly is concerned that cell phones and other portable electronic devices could interfere with navigational and communications systems, while the FCC worries that airborne cellphone signals could overload networks on the ground. The Journal reports, however, that some 30 countries have now given telecom approval for in-flight calls, although air-safety reviews are still ongoing. Quantas, Emirates and Ryanair are reportedly hoping to begin offering in-flight cellular service before the end of this year.
Meanwhile, AirCell is constructing a network of 80 to 100 ground towers across the U.S. that could eventually provide both voice and data in-flight services. It is reportedly pitching the service to multiple airlines, although no customers have been announced. The company, which currently provides satellite phone service to private jets, holds a U.S. patent on technology to allow in-flight use of both GSM and CDMA cell phones.
AirCell’s North American air-to-ground broadband system is scheduled to debut in early 2008, allowing airline passengers to surf the Internet, use e-mail, and connect to corporate networks using WiFi-equipped laptops, handsets and other devices. It reportedly costs $100,000 to equip each airliner, although the process is relatively simple, and can be done by maintenance workers overnight.
Boeing spent $1 billion several years ago to launch its Connexion in-flight Internet service, but closed the business last year after users balked at paying steep charges of $10 per hour, or $27 per 24-hour period. AirCell’s Blumenstein says his company plans to charge no more than $10 a day to passengers, who also will be able to use their memberships in existing WiFi service programs like T-Mobile, iPass and Boingo.