Emirates to offer in-flight mobile phone service

Dubai airline also plans to add Internet access using GPRS in late 2007

As one group abandons its in-flight Wi-Fi Internet access, another hopes to be more successful with an on-board mobile phone service for air passengers.

Emirates Airline has signed up for a new in-flight mobile phone service offered by AeroMobile, a joint venture between communications and systems engineering vendor Arinc and Norwegian telecommunications service provider Telenor, the companies said Friday.

The Dubai airline expects to launch the service on board one of its Boeing 777 airplanes early next year, provided it receives necessary approval.

AeroMobile joins OnAir, a joint in-flight mobile phone venture between European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and SITA, a provider of air transport IT services. Last year British carrier BMI (formerly British Midland Airlines) and TAP-Air Portugal agreed to introduce OnAir's new in-flight voice and text messaging service on European flights after receiving approval.

Officials in Europe have signalled interest in allowing the use of in-flight mobile phones, while various agencies responsible for radio communications and airline safety in the U.S. continue to review the technology.

Numerous experts are concerned about the possible risk of wireless devices interfering with cockpit and ground-based communication systems.

Calls made with AeroMobile are beamed to the ground through Inmarsat's satellite communications systems, already installed on all Emirates aircraft.

All calls and text messages will be billed to users' regular phone bills, at rates comparable to international roaming rates.

The AeroMobile system allows cabin crew to control the system at all times. For example, the crew may disable voice service and select text only operation mode for night flights.

Features designed to protect the peace of passengers come in response to concerns voiced by numerous airline customers about being disturbed on long flights by other passengers making calls.

Later next year, Emirates and AeroMobile plan to add Internet access using GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), which offer data speeds of around 50Kbps. The service will support the use of BlackBerry and Palm Treo devices, in addition to mobile data-enabled PDAs (personal digital assistants) and notebooks.

Whether the data service, not to mention the voice service, will ever take off remains to be seen.

The Emirates-AeroMobile deal comes as The Boeing Co. phases out Connexion by Boeing, an in-flight service that delivered Internet access using a combination of satellite transmission and Wi-Fi.

In August, Boeing announced its plans to phase out Connexion after failing to find a buyer.

Connexion was rolled out on some flights in Europe and Asia but was never adopted by a major U.S. carrier. First conceived in 2000, the service was approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in May 2002 as the nation's airlines were reeling from a travel slump that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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