How will in-flight cellphones work?

It’s been a whirlwind month for air travelers. On Oct. 31, the Federal Aviation Administration relaxed a long-standing ban on in-flight electronics. Then, Europe expanded passenger access to 3G and 4G data services on aircraft. Now, the Federal Communications Commission said it will consider new rules to allow phone calls from cruising altitudes.

Q: How is all this going to work?

A: Most likely, the system will look a lot like what Europe has. Air travelers over there have had access to in-flight data since 2008. Granted, you could surf only on 2G speeds until last week.

Europe calls its technology MCA, for mobile communications onboard aircraft. Every plane that supports it is equipped with a base station called a picocell that creates a mini-cellular network. All the wireless signals from your phone or tablet get collected by the base station, then are transmitted to a commercial communications satellite. The satellite then beams those transmissions down to Earth, where they link up with terrestrial networks and continue on their way like normal.

Q: Sounds great. What’s the catch?

A: It’s pretty costly. As long as you’re on the picocell, your cellular provider charges you at international roaming rates. These extra fees go toward paying for the satellite connection and other costs. The good news is that if all cellular companies participate, it might crack the market for in-flight Internet wide open so that it’s no longer dominated by pricey WiFi services. With any luck, the competition should drive prices down.

Q: What about signal interference? Won’t this crash the plane?

A: Well, planes haven’t started falling out of the sky in Europe yet, so I think we’re okay.

Q: That’s not very comforting.

A: Sorry. Here’s a better answer: The reason airlines resort to the convoluted satellite method at all is to make sure that only low-power transmissions are involved. Newer technologies are being developed that allow direct air-to-ground communications, but they still generally suffer from limited bandwidth. The satellites provide much faster download rates than direct connections, at least for now.

Q: So what do I do about the guy who’s blabbing on the phone across the aisle from me?

A: That’s up to you. Unfortunately, airplanes don’t come with quiet cars.

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