Friday, May 12, 2006

Coming Soon: In-Flight VoIP Calling

Like it or not, airline passengers in U.S. skies are likely to be listening to their fellow passengers talking on phones in a year or so. An FCC frequency auction underway this week will likely pave the way for VoIP calls in-flight.

Nine companies ranging from Verizon Communications' Airfone to JetBlue Airways are bidding for the frequencies. Airfone already offers phone service on many flights, but its high cost has limited its use. JetBlue has declined to say what its LiveTV LCC unit would do with a winning frequency.

Although many frequent flyers and airline attendants favor a ban on the phone chatter, Connexion by Boeing, whose Internet service is already offered on nearly 200 international flights a day, notes that there have been no complaints of in-cabin incidents about the technology. The Connexion service is regularly used by passengers to make VoIP calls.

Connexion officials look the U.S. air-to-ground (ATG) frequency services as potentially complimentary to Boeing's satellite-based service.

"An ATG provider and Connexion by Boeing could work together to provide added value to airlines and their passengers by providing a common look and feel to the Web portal, billing, operational applications, etc." said Terrance Scott, a Connexion spokesman, in an e-mail. "That makes such services more broadly available to the traveling public."

Scott noted that airline economic reality may dictate that domestic U.S. flights use land-based frequencies while long-haul and international flights could utilize satellite links. While several international airlines have rushed to install the Connexion service, the FCC has withheld its approval for the service in the U.S.

The FCC ATG bidding for spectrum in the 800 MHz band got underway on Wednesday. Two winners are expected to emerge from the auction. Airfone executives have indicated that Internet service could begin in about a year if it wins some bandwidth. Other bidders have generally been playing their cards close to their vests and haven't said much about their plans.

In addition to Airfone and JetBlue, other bidders include AC BidCo, Acadia Broadand, AMTS Consortium, Intelligent Transport & Monitoring Wireless, Space Data Spectrum Holdings, and Unison Spectrum.

The FCC has withheld the in-flight use of cell phones to date.

Boeing, responding to a recent Carnegie Mellon University study on the safety of in-flight calls, said that it has taken steps to ensure that passengers can't interfere with aircraft navigation systems.

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