How Broadband Data Will Make An In Air Mobile Phone Ban Difficult
By Mike Masnick, Fri Apr 08 23:45:00 GMT 2005

It's becoming clear that people don't want mobile phones allowed on airplanes, but as more airlines are putting broadband data services on planes, can they stop people from chatting with those on the ground?

It used to be that, when you were in an airplane, you really were cut off from the rest of the world -- unless you were willing to spend quite a bit of money. That's been changing. A growing number of airlines are experimenting with some form of broadband access on airplanes, and it won't be long before most flights will at least have some option to allow users to surf the web and check their email as they fly. However, the next step will be allowing mobile phones on airplanes. There are a few disagreements about why phones are banned, but the two reasons most often cited are technological problems (mainly that the signal from the phone will hit too many towers at once) and safety problems (interference with equipment). However, the safety issues have mostly been discounted and the technology issue can be solved by putting what is basically a cell tower directly on the airplane, which will capture signals from the phone and beam them down to the ground.

However, that has brought up another issue that hadn't percolated to the surface before: a lot of people say they don't want people to be able to use mobile phones in the air. In fact, a new study shows two thirds of air travelers would prefer to keep airplanes and phone-free zones. This isn't all that surprising, given the many stories in the past of "mobile phone rage" among those who get upset at hearing half a conversation. In fact, some studies have shown that the reason people get so upset at mobile phone conversations, as opposed to a regular conversation is the lack of hearing the other half of the conversation. No one is sure if this is simply because people are naturally nosy, or because the pauses between actually hearing someone speak make it more jarring.

Of course, there are plenty of people who do want to talk while flying, so it's very likely that it will come about in some form -- even if planes start to have "mobile phone" and "no mobile phone" sections. Either way, though, it seems unlikely that airlines would really be able to ban chatting with those on the ground completely. The thing that broadband connections have made clear back here on the ground, is that the separation of voice from other types of data isn't that important any more. VoIP (which is just treating voice as data) is taking on traditional landlines. With all that broadband on airplanes, will the airlines have to ban things like Skype and other voice chat solutions? They can ban a mobile phone, but if the conversation is happening via a computer, does that get banned too? If not, what about a PDA with a VoIP softphone? The shades of gray make it much more difficult to figure out how to set up any kind of official rule. The fact is that people are going to figure out a way to talk if they want to talk to people on the ground. Unless airlines start creating completely "quiet zones" it's going to be difficult to stop it completely.