November I 2007

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris

Swiss Army knives, in your face, in the air

The mobile phone is becoming today’s electronic Swiss Army knife. It is accumulating functions at an amazing – some might say, alarming – rate. Smartphones are getting smarter, they send and receive text messages, view videos, take, send and receive photos, substitute credit cards, play games, substitute a Windows-based PC in a pinch, connect to the Internet and do more other things than I can easily list.

About a week ago I read that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) approved a new use for the cell phone – as an airline ticket. The new standard, which IATA hopes will be in use by 2010 lets one buy airline tickets via text messages and receive a barcode confirmation on the mobile phone’s screen. Upon checking in at the airport, one need only flash the barcode to a reader, no other ticket or paper needed. IATA estimates the use of cell phone barcodes could save the airlines as much as US$ 500 million per year. Barcode tickets would probably work just as well at sporting events, concerts, films, conferences – any place where admission has to be controlled.

Speaking of mobile phones at airports, the use of mobile phones on airplanes – still prohibited – is being tested by airlines around the world. Several announced plans to test and offer an in-flight cell phone service at rates comparable to current international roaming charges. The credit card swipe phones found in many airplanes nowadays are just too expensive for most people to use. Dubai’s Emirates airlines dropped prices down to an ‘inexpensive’ US$5 per minute and is said to log as many as 13 thousand minutes per month; this, according to my source, is apparently some sort of record. In 2006, Emirates announced that it would inaugurate in-flight cell phone service in January 2007 at rates approximating those for international roaming, but as far as I can tell, the service has not yet started.

Surprisingly, although many people would love to see cell phones on airplanes, many more are against it. Few people are willing to give up the unconnected privacy of a flight, and fewer still want to put up with the incessant chatter of an addicted cell phone user during a long flight. For this reason, many airlines will be reluctant, even if the authorities approve, to allow unrestricted cell phone usage. Some proposals call for a ‘tap-instead-of-talk’ option, permitting smartphones and Blackberry-like devices to send emails and text, but prohibiting voice communications. Limits on call duration and hours when calls might be permitted have been discussed. There has even been talk of setting aside a small glass enclosed space for cell phone usage.

WiFi service is another story. Airlines the world over are planning to offer this service in 2008. Some airlines such as Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa already offer the service. Boeing spent over one billion dollars on its Connexion by Boeing (CBB) satellite-based WiFi service, but ultimately pulled it off the market because demand, at least at the prices they had to charge, did not measure up to their projections. Connexion had problems not only with users, but with airlines that were not at all happy with the system’s 800-pound weight, the cost of installation and the weeks an airplane was out of service while it was being installed.

Despite Boeing’s problems, the FAA has reportedly received more than 40 applications this year to fit new aircraft with WiFi systems in the USA.

In June of last year, AirCell paid US$ 31.3 million at the United States’ Federal Communications Commission auction for exclusive rights to the digital spectrum needed for air-to-ground WiFi services. American Airlines and Virgin America have already signed agreements to install AirCell’s system in the coming months.

The system is much lighter – about 100 pounds, cheaper and faster to install than previous systems. AirCell claims the system will provide 3.1 megabit per second uploads, similar to DSL speeds. The system needs only two small antennae to communicate with 100 or so cell towers spread throughout the USA, each with an effective radius of 250 miles. AirCell will expand its coverage to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean within a year. It is a good economical system, as far as it goes, but the ground-based system doesn’t go quite far enough for those of us that have to cross an ocean or two.

The pricing for the service has not been finalized, but early reports claim it will cost about US$ 10 per flight or per day and those who subscribe to services such as TMobile or Boingo would pay a special reduced fee to log on. Speaking of prices, if your first thought – like mine – was, ‘right, I’ll just log onto Skype to make my calls’, forget it. Skype probably won’t work; there are tools to block voice transmission and the airlines, no doubt, will use them.

Two companies, Row 44 and Panasonic Avionics Corporation are trying to walk the waters Boeing’s service drowned in. They intend to offer globe-circling satellite-based services people can afford. Row 44 uses Hughes technology to provide up to 81 megabits per second broadband connectivity for Web-surfing, email and, possibly, even international television access. Initially Row 44 will cover all of North America. Service for Europe, the Middle East, South America, Asia and trans-oceanic routes will be phased in. Alaska Airlines will be their first customer for the service.

Panasonic Avionics Corporation, a leader in the in-flight entertainment sector, claims to have the least expensive system because they use existing technology and satellites instead of their own network. Airlines, no doubt, are pleased that they can install the lightweight system during regular scheduled maintenance. Panasonic expects to start service by mid-2008, but has not yet announced the airlines with which they are negotiating. Panasonic’s user interface is integrated into its in-flight entertainment systems.

Although airlines are initially likely to cut on-board access to Skype, I wonder how long the prohibition will hold up. On the one hand, they all talk about avoiding annoying chatter during flights, on the other, they are all investigating on-board pico-cells for GSM access. The sale of WiFi enabled handsets is growing rapidly. Carriers in some markets expect that by next year more than half the handsets they sell will have WiFi chips. Given the ease and low-cost of the WiFi services, some airlines will certainly offer this service to gain a competitive edge and others are sure to quickly follow.

The real question is, how long it will be before the ‘in-your-face’ competition between the likes of Facebook and Google takes flight – literally – and they begin to subsidise airborne WiFi so they can bombard captive airline passengers with ads.

For the record, Facebook recently closed a US$ 240 million investment and advertising partnership with Microsoft and plans to mine the treasure trove of data it has about its participants to target advertising to them. Facebook is a social networking phenomenon. It grew to 50 million users in a year and continues to add more than 200 thousand new users per day. Many people use Facebook instead of email for personal contacts and there is no reason to believe it will be different in the air than on the ground.

Google, a past master at the data-mining-targeted-ad, and no slouch at social networking, just announced plans for an open software platform that will compete directly with Microsoft’s Windows Mobile. Google built an alliance with a broad-based list of heavy hitting wireless players – including HTC and Motorola, T-Mobile, and Qualcomm – that will serve as the nucleus of a development community for the platform and the phones that will use it.

Google – whose readiness to slug it out nose-to-nose and toes-to-toes with Microsoft (and now with Facebook) any time, anywhere, is no secret – can be expected to compete fiercely with anything Microsoft/ Facebook does in the air. Count on Microsoft, as always, to return the favour.


Our next Connect-World: Global issue will be published later this month. The issue will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are one of the main media sponsors such as: International CES (7-10 January 2008, Las Vegas), CTIA Wireless 2008 (April 1-3, 2008, Las Vegas), and National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) (April 11-17, 2008, Las Vegas).

The theme of this issue of Connect-World Global Visionaries will be: The world’s on a string – using ICT to tie it together

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) are powerful tools, they are changing the way we work and the way we play. The global economy and the lives of many people have changed dramatically as a result of ICTs, and there is a broad consensus – almost faith – in the ability of ICT to solve many, if not all of the world’s problems. The United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) concentrated upon the use of ICTs to create an information society and move forward to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Not a day passes without some new notion about how ICT will create a better world.

What is lacking in much of this talk is a hardheaded notion of some of the practical steps we must take to actually have some impact upon the major challenges that humanity faces.

We have all heard the old saying, “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. I suspect mankind’s journey to solve the major global challenges needs thousands, if not millions, of small, practical, steps. I have heard all my life – my father repeated this frequently – that, ‘every complex problem has a simple answer, but it is probably wrong!’ Complex problems need many simple answers. What is yours? What are some of the simple things, the first steps, we might take using ICTs to help deal with major global challenges, such as global warming, poverty, health, education, wars…?


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