How we gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree, they used to sing long before any of us was born, and that, in a nutshell, is the problem facing British Telecom-Securicor’s Cellnet Communications Ltd and Racal Electronics’ Racal Vodafone. Now that all those high flyers who have taken advantage of the […]
How we gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree, they used to sing long before any of us was born, and that, in a nutshell, is the problem facing British Telecom-Securicor’s Cellnet Communications Ltd and Racal Electronics’ Racal Vodafone. Now that all those high flyers who have taken advantage of the opportunities of the Enterprise Economy and take for granted the cellular phones in their Rollers, Porsches and BMWs – and their briefcases – they find it a bit of a come-down when they are really flying high, up there at around 15,000 feet in their executive jets, to find that they are suddenly cut off from their cellular security blankets. And even those of us who still have to make do with tourist on British Airways would still appreciate the opportunity, when we’re finally airborne after one of those characteristic three hour waits at Rome Airport or wherever else it is that Thatcherism’s writ does not yet run and none of the phones work, to reassure our nearest and dearest that while we will be very late, we are finally up and on our way. Airliners on the phone Flushed with the success of its Cellnet service, British Telecommunications Plc is thinking along just such lines, and has two projects under way to turn the world’s skyways as well as its highways one vast phone zone (acknowledgements to Ferranti International Plc for the loan of its term). There are two appropriate means of delivering telephone service to an aircraft: you can shoot the link up to a satellite, which then beams it down to a dish on the plane; or you can treat the aircraft as a satellite and transmit a ground-to-air beam straight at the aircraft. The latter approach is the one being used by the one air telephone service operator currently putting airliners on the phone, Airfone Inc of Washington. But most of the publicity so far has gone to the British Telecom Skyphone system that uses the alternative, satellite-to-aircraft, approach, first highlighted here two years ago (CI No 568), and that is the one that will be tried out by British Airways Plc later this year, with the target a fully automatic system using the Inmarsat maritime satellites by July 1989. Highlighted on British Telecom’s stand at the Farnborough International Air Show last week, the digital system is equally appropriate for sending and receiving data as it is for speech telephony, which was one of the reasons for showing it off at Farnborough. Airlines and other aviation operators are mildly interested in using such a system as an alternative means of sending data to pilots – and there is also potential for automatically collecting data from aircraft by the same means, so that it would be feasible to collect in parallel on the ground some of the data fed into the flight recorder making it a little easier to find out what went wrong with an aircraft that ends up thousands of feet down on the sea bed: such things do happen. Blue sky project Racal Electronics Plc has been designing the radio frequency and satellite data units for the system, but is not the sole source: alternatives will be available from Rockwell International Inc’s Collins Radio unit in Dallas and from E-Systems Inc, of St Petersburg, Florida, while Ball Aerospace Corp, location unknown, manufactures the antennae. Manufacturers are naturally waiting to see how many airlines bite before putting aircraft-specific equipment into serial production, but Telecom looks for manufacture to start next year. But despite the obvious aptness of the term, the system is by no means a blue sky project: the fact that it is using the Inmarsat satellites means that most of the equipment for the system can be adapted from that being developed or already in use in shipborne communications, so that if there is enough interest from airlines, a full public service could be started fairly quickly. And British Telecom is not taking a narrow UK or European view of the service: the company is firmly dedicated to acting out its role on the world stage, and has signed up with the telecommunications authorities in Norway and i
n Singapore, and reckons that the footprints of the satellites in reach of the earthstations in the UK and the other two countries will enable the triumvirate to offer long-haul airline passengers and operators something very close to global telephone coverage. That being the case, what of Jetphone? Jetphone is a 50-50 joint venture of British Telecom and France Cables & Radio SA, and is working on a ground-to-aircraft system similar to the one operated by Airfone in the US. In contrast to the satellite Skyphone system, Jetphone will be single sideband analogue, making it unsuitable for data. The partners are working on two concepts – either a cordless phone that can be handed to whichever passenger wants it, or a phone fixed in the seatbacks. The partners envisage PTTs across Europe operating the earthstations, and it is likely that the equipment used will be adapted from that developed for Airfone which is manufactured by E F Johnson, location unknown. Smack in the middle Adapted is the operative word, because Airfone operates in bands between 800MHz and 900MHz, which puts it smack in the middle of the wavebands used for cellular telephony in Europe. That being the case, Telecom and France Radio are planning to move up into the GigaHertz spectrum, going for bands between 1.5GHz and 1.6GHz. Why should British Telecom be investing money in two systems? The thinking is that the ground-to-air Jetphone system will be ideal for internal European flights, so that the Skyphone satellite system can be reserved for long-haul and intercontinental traffic. As usual with these things, designing a system and demonstrating that it works – British Telecom was playing back recordings of ground-to-air calls and offering visitors the opportunity to talk phone-to-phone to test out the codec coder-decoders on its stand at Farnborough – is the easy part, and the real hard work starts when the developers seek to win international agreement to go ahead with a system. But Telecom is once again showing the way in Europe, and for the first time in decades, we have a regulatory environment in the UK that is entrepreneurial enough to say to hell with it, we’ll go ahead without them when others drag their feet, so the chances are good that within a year or two, those so minded will be able to dial the world from the comfort of their Falcon jets as well as their Porsches.