FAA says in-flight mobile phones to remain off

By Sterling Camden
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

FAAThe Telegraph reports that the FAA told them it has no plans to lift the ban on mobile phone use during airline flights in the US anytime soon.  But the Telegraph is not an uninterested reporter on this matter — they are actively promoting a petition to keep mobile phones off commercial flights.

The FAA’s ban is based on fears that mobile phone signals could interfere with the airplane’s electronic controls.  I’ve always wondered how a machine as complex and expensive as a jet airliner could be vulnerable to something you can buy for $100 and hold in your hand, so I did some searching.  Apparently, no specific incident of equipment failure can be conclusively linked to interference from mobile phones (or other electronic devices), but there is some good reason to believe such interference can and does occur.

The problem is that mobile phones aren’t designed to operate high above the earth at over 400 miles per hour.  Instead of locking in on the nearest tower on the ground, the phone would get picked up by multiple towers, all of them pretty far away, with each distance changing rapidly.  The handset would likely be transmitting at maximum output power to try to clear up the confusion, as well as to penetrate the airplane’s metal shell.  Multiply that by the number of people operating a handset on the plane, and you can generate some real noise.

The solution to this problem is to provide an on-board repeater.  Each handset can operate on low power, since the repeater is very close and inside the airplane.  The signal can then be forwarded to the ground on non-cellular frequencies that don’t interfere with the airplane or phones on the ground.  Irish carrier Ryanair already provides just such a service, and Qantas is evaluating the technology.

I’m not a fan of further increasing the discomfort of being wedged into a tiny seat beside some big, sweaty loudmouth by letting him yak into his cell phone all  the way to Newark — but I think it’s inevitable that someday electronic communications will be available throughout commercial flights.  I’d sure like to be able to use my EV-DO to access the Internet while traveling.  It’s amazing how impotent a computer is these days without it.


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