In-flight voice and data communications takes off

From: IST Results
Published: Fri Jun 03 2005

Demonstrating a pioneering and flexible working architecture for wireless in-flight communications is a group of European researchers whose system will enable aircraft travellers to make mobile phone calls, switch on laptops, connect to the company intranet via an in-cabin wireless link, and download and update files without problems.

Working under the IST project WirelessCabin that finished at the end of December 2004 their demonstrations illustrated how passengers could use their own mobile phones or laptops while on board the aircraft, using satellite links to the terrestrial infrastructure.

"We demonstrated the system aboard an Airbus A340-600 aircraft while in flight, not in a simulator," says project coordinator Axel Jahn of consulting company TriaGnoSys in Germany. "We connected to two live networks, and passengers could phone in and out with their own mobile telephone, use a laptop with streaming audio or video, and send and receive SMS messages. Moreover cabin crew communications or emergency telemedicine services are available."

Jahn emphasises the contribution the project has made to the whole in-flight communications sector. "At the beginning of the project, no-one even spoke about passenger telephony in aircraft. We have paved the way by defining an architecture and developing a working prototype, and now people expect to see these ideas become working services within one or two years."

The partners in the consortium, which includes names such as Airbus, Siemens, Ericsson, Inmarsat and others, started by interviewing airline passengers and the airlines themselves. They then carried out market surveys to determine the commercial potential for in-flight communication services. Finally, they began work on the most difficult part of the project – defining and developing the architecture.

The end-result was the development of a wireless architecture for third-generation mobile networks in the aircraft cabin, with appropriate protocols for transport, authentication, signalling, quality-of-service support and security. The final design has also been carefully tested for electromagnetic interference issues, in particular that it does not interfere with mission-critical aircraft safety systems and terrestrial networks.

The WirelessCabin infrastructure consists of three main parts; the cabin segment, the transport segment and the ground segment. The cabin segment includes local access and service integration. The transport segment can be one or more satellite (or terrestrial) systems, with circuit or packet-switched bearer services transporting WirelessCabin services to a communications service-provider on the ground. The ground segment includes the service provider, the public network, be it PSTN or Internet, and the passengers’ home network for IP and 3G services.

A key advantage of the system they have developed, says Jahn, is the control it provides over quality of service for individual applications. The infrastructure allows varying priorities to be allocated to different groups of users – e.g. emergencies have priority over the passenger services.

WirelessCabin has without doubt played a leading role in promoting the safe use of mobile phones and Internet access in flight, as well as in the development of wireless communication technologies suitable for use inside an aircraft cabin. Project partner Airbus has already announced that as from 2006 it will be offering, together with daughter company OnAir, a range of voice and live IP services for in-flight communications.

Another partner, KID-Systeme, intends to produce equipment and applications for mobile services (e.g. GSM, WLAN) on board aircraft, and will supply the end-to-end infrastructure for the services being marketed by OnAir. Thanks to what the company has learnt from participation in WirelessCabin, it sees passenger communications as having the long-term potential to develop into a whole new business area for the company.

Ericsson said of the project, "one of the best experienced in many years of both EU-funded R&D Projects and industrial and commercial projects … the work done in all the work packages was highly professional."

From the networking and protocol perspective, WirelessCabin adopted an Open Standards approach, using standard IP protocols for signalling interfaces to ensure protocol convergence for different wireless access technologies. The project’s progress has therefore been followed with close interest by several major international mobile operators, including T-Mobile, Vodafone, Telenor, France Telecom, O2 and more.

WirelessCabin Contact:
Dr Axel Jahn
TriaGnoSys GmbH
D-82230 Wessling-Oberpfaffenhofen
Tel: +49-8153-88678-8

Note to Editors:
Company: IST Results
Contact Name: Tara Morris
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Contact Phone: 003222861985

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