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How would in-flight calling actually work?

How would in-flight calling actually work?


The technology’s already here — someone just has to flip the switch

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Making phone calls from 35,000 feet in the air has been a hot-button topic of late, spurred on by recent comments made by Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The agency is investigating whether or not it should lift its long-standing ban on making phone calls from a plane, following its recent decision to allow passengers to use portable electronics below 10,000 feet.

In fact, the FCC is already at the point where it is asking for the public’s opinion on the topic, which will be factored in if and when the commission does make a decision on the matter. A number of citizens and airlines have spoken up against allowing cellphone use in airplanes, citing the inevitable nuisances and uncomfortable situations that would be created by the person sitting over 7B incessantly talking on their phone. Members of Congress have also proposed a bill outright banning calls based on the disruption to other passengers that they may cause.

But apart from the controversy, there is still the question of how all of this will work, and perhaps more importantly, how much it will cost for you to call in an order for a pizza while coasting over Nebraska. The answers aren’t exactly as cut-and-dried as you might think.

How all of this will work and how much it will cost?

You may wonder why you can’t just turn on your cellphone while in an airplane and have it work. Since today’s cellphone networks were explicitly designed for use by people on the ground, the towers broadcast their signals laterally, to cover as much ground as possible. They don’t fire their signals upward, in the direction of an airplane. Combine that with the airspeed of a commercial jet, which is far too fast for cellphone towers to reliably transfer a signal from one to another, and you can see why you won’t just be able to use your cellphone in a plane as you would on the ground. Therefore, special technologies and systems need to be put in place in order for it to happen at all.

Though the focus of this topic has largely been on the social faux pas of using your phone on a plane, the actual statement by the FCC is only concerned with whether or not it should approve one specific technology required to place calls from a plane using your mobile phone. This technology has been used by international airlines for years and consists of installing a small cell tower on the plane itself (commonly called a "picocell") that transmits calls from the air to the ground. Use of picocells in airplanes has been banned in the US, but other countries have not had a problem with allowing them. (In fact, when international planes with picocells fly into the US, they have to turn them off until they exit US airspace.)

Roaming on a plane

These picocell systems, which have been around for the better part of a decade, allow cellphone users to make calls to the ground using their own phone numbers, as opposed to using a different phone number (as the old in-plane phones required) or VoIP services such as Skype. Since the picocell systems add extra electronics and components to airplanes, the FCC has not approved their use in the US due to concerns about potential interference with vital navigation systems in the plane.

But a picocell isn’t the only technology that lets fliers place phone calls from their cellphones while in the air, and the other option has already been approved by the FCC. Gogo, the ubiquitous in-flight Wi-Fi provider, announced in November that it would launch a new mobile app for iOS and Android that lets users place phone calls and send text messages from their phones while they are in a Gogo-equipped plane. Like picocells, the Gogo system lets users make calls with their own phone numbers.

A Gogo representative told The Verge that since the system is app-based, the technology to make it all work is already in all of the planes that have Gogo Wi-Fi and there is nothing for the FCC to approve or deny. "The technologies already exist and we already have them — it’s up to the airlines to enable it," said Gogo. "The only issue for Gogo is airlines, not the FCC’s decision." Given Delta’s CEO referring to in-flight calling as "a disruption to the travel experience," it doesn’t look like many airlines will approve it.

"The technologies already exist and we already have them — it’s up to the airlines to enable it."

Gogo claims that it can enable the text messaging features independently of voice calling, so if airlines do reject the calling option, cellphone users will still be able to send texts. The company says that the voice-calling feature was built in response to requests from private-plane operators and international airlines.

A picocell system would likely require customers to pay roaming fees for each minute that they are talking on the phone, much like how international roaming is charged today. Virgin Atlantic’s AeroMobile service is only available to customers of British carriers O2 and Vodafone and costs £1 per minute for calls and 20 pence for text messages, for example (it’s also limited to six users at a time).

When asked if there were any plans for in-air roaming rates in the works in light of the FCC’s announcements, none of the major US carriers had anything to share. For its part, Gogo says that its service, due to be available next year, would use the same per-minute rates as a customer’s ground calls, with only a yet-to-be-determined fee to access the service while in the air.

"It will be the airlines’ decision."

At the end of the day, it’s likely not the technical or regulatory hurdles that will decide whether or not your next cross-country flight will be full of people with phones pressed to their ears. Rather, it will be up to the individual airlines to allow or deny it, something the FCC explicitly called out in its initial announcement. "Ultimately, if the FCC adopts new rules, it will be the airlines’ decision, in consultation with their customers, and consistent with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Transportation (USDOT) rules, whether to permit internet access, texting and voice services on mobile wireless devices while airborne," said the agency.

Though in-flight calling carries less of a social stigma internationally, the backlash against the FCC’s announcement shows that it’s not something that many American fliers approve of. And since the airlines typically choose to do what’s in their best business interests, they probably won’t want to piss off potential customers any more than they already do.

Still, when you consider the effect that modern gadgets — smartphones in particular — have had on what we consider to be socially acceptable behavior, it’s not unreasonable to think that in-flight calling could eventually cross that bar as well. After all, the technology’s already here — someone just has to flip the switch.