GSM to take to the skies


The mobile phone and air travel have long been seen as mutually exclusive but this situation is set to change according to Mike Fitzgerald, ceo of Altobridge.

The company has created a mobile management unit --- a software platform which manages a mini, on-board mobile network made up specially designed base stations smaller than pico cells. Fitzgerald explained that the safety worries about EMC and interference come primarily from the power levels associated with public mobile networks. However, he said, "In GSM, the network dictates the power levels and therefore you need a solution that monitors and manages the RF and that is what our solution does."
Just exactly what power levels don't interfere with the aircraft systems is still unclear.  The standard GSM level of around 2W is banned but Fitzgerald explained, the Altobridge management platform has operated at 100--200mW in tests, a level resulting from the comparatively small area and simple RF propagation involved. Unlike standard GSM, the signal does not need to, and in fact is designed not to penetrate the aircraft's chasis and works on line of sight.
In addition, Altobridge is working with the European and North American aviation authorities to create a system that is safe, something which, Fitzgerald suggested, is not the case today. Many phones are left on in error at the moment causing a safety risk, as could interference from terrestrial networks on the ground which the system also monitors, he claimed. Furthermore, the market is now right for the technology to take off.
The mobile and airline industries have been through the most testing years in their histories and both are looking for ways to increase revenues in mature and competitive markets. According to Fitzgerald, this provides a compelling business case. "The business model is based on the fact that GSM volumes will drive the price down. Initially, the service will be offered in first and business classes, but everyone involved is working on the presumption of diminishing returns as volume increases...the goal is for prices around USD2 per minute."
These rates are significantly lower than those offered by the satellite phones currently installed in aircraft. Although the Altobridge system uses satellite for backhaul, Fitzgerald stated that the volumes GSM offers provides a bargaining position for lower backhaul rates, while the management platform minimises the satellite bandwidth used.
Fitzgerald stated that Altobridge has a clear advantage over competitors looking to provide similar systems as it has a real product ready for trial, while he suggested the business case was fundamentally stronger than those of competitive technologies. "The WLAN connection being trialled by Boeing and Lufthansa is priced at around USD30 per subscriber, while for the cost of installing that system on a single aircraft, 7--10 aircraft could be equipped with our platform."
The system is being trialled in the US and Fitzgerald sees the business jet market in the US as the first target. However, he suggested that there was "no reason to delay entry into the European market," and that the speed of rollout would be dictated by the availability of funding and the regulatory environment.