Voice and video calls via Wi-Fi from 30,000 feet?

6 Feb

“In-flight voice is an interesting topic,” said In-Stat analyst Amy Cravens. “Airlines for the most part [especially in the U.S.] continue to resist it to preserve the passenger experience, but many travelers indicate they would want the service.”

Cravens and other analysts say there’s no danger of in-flight Wi-Fi interfering with a plane’s communications or navigation systems. Many experts also say that regular cellphone calling without Wi-Fi is safe, but the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission still ban the service.

The FCC reconsidered its ban and launched an inquiry in 2004, and in 2007 the agency ended up keeping the ban in place, saying there wasn’t enough technical information on whether cellphone use onboard aircraft would cause harmful interference to ground-based networks.

The FCC’s position led to a public debate over in-flight cellphone usage in 2007. There were suggestions at the time that continuing the ban simply gave the airlines an opportunity to find ways to charge for calling services.

But using a Wi-Fi channel for voice or video calling opens up many possibilities, as long as the airlines and the public want to head in that direction, analysts said.


“From a technical perspective, there is no concern [of voice over Wi-Fi] interfering with operational communications, so it is more of a security and passenger experience matter,” Cravens said. “I have not seen any movement on this topic by either the FAA or airlines, but would not be surprised if eventually the ban is lifted.”

Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates, added: “I’ve never seen actual credible proof that cellphones on planes caused any interference problems. So in my opinion, turning off your phone on a plane is an unnecessary requirement.”

Gold added that many people probably forget to turn cellphones off during flights, despite reminders by the cabin crew.

Analysts said some law enforcement and government security agencies have worried that terrorists could use in-flight calling systems (either via Wi-Fi or cellular service) to coordinate an attack from a plane. U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials did not respond to a request to comment on that matter, however.


The U.S. airlines have the biggest stake in the question of whether to allow voice or video calling at some point, perhaps using a secure and safe system and charging people who choose to use it. Computerworld contacted several airlines, including American and United, to ask their position on the matter, but none responded.

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