July 16, 2004 1:55 PM PDT

Chocks away for in-flight cell phone test

Airborne cell phone service took a test flight on Thursday, in a safety and technology demonstration aimed at easing fears that mobile calls interfere with navigation systems.

During a two-hour "proof of concept" flight 30,000 feet over Dallas, wireless-gear maker Qualcomm joined American Airlines to show off a service using CDMA, or Code Division Multiple Access, technology. An onboard cellular base station the size of a laptop was linked to a Globalstar satellite, which funneled calls and short text messages to Earth-bound cell phones, Qualcomm said.

"Even though commercial availability of cell phone use in-flight is approximately 24 months away, (this is) an important step in bringing in-cabin wireless services to our customers," Dan Garton, an executive vice president American Airlines, said in a statement.

The demonstration is a sign that the wireless and airline industries are confident that federal restrictions on in-cabin cell phone use will be lifted. The ban was borne of concerns that the calls could compromise equipment onboard the plane and on the ground.

"We did not put anyone in any danger" during the flight, said Paul Guckian, senior director of technology at Qualcomm. The company plans to turn over data it culled during the test to the Federal Communications Commission and to the Federal Aviation Administration, which jointly oversee cell phone use on aircraft.

Telephone companies have been eager to give in-flight systems a try, because airplane passengers are a captive audience for making voice calls or using an Internet connection for work or entertainment. To date, their efforts have mainly consisted of installing phones into seatbacks or offering broadband access for laptops.

Should cell phone calling be allowed on planes, airlines may have to contend with a backlash from passengers who don't want to hear someone else's conversation. That happened at Amtrak, which banned cell phones from some train cars, after rider complaints of "cell yell" and other wireless annoyances.

 

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