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Israeli-developed airplane cell phone technology takes flight

Posted By David Brinn On December 5, 2004 @ 11:00 pm In | No Comments

Dr. Irwin Jacobs, chairman and CEO of Qualcomm, speaks on his cell phone during an American Airlines flight originating out of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.There are many inconveniences to air travel. But if you want to get someplace fast, you’ll put up with almost anything – the cramped seats, the big guy sitting next to you, the baby crying in front of you, and – the food.

But one of the biggest sacrifices – especially in today’s fast-paced environment – of not being able to use your cell phone, is quickly becoming history thanks to an Israeli-developed system which enables in-flight cell phone use.

American-based pioneer and world leader in CDMA technology, Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) and its subsidiary Qualcomm Israel teamed with American Airlines last summer to demonstrate satellite-based air-to-ground cellular service. And after two years of development by Qualcomm Israel, American and Qualcomm officials circled the West Texas skies this past summer making calls from their cell phones in a flight authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission to test the technology’s safety and transmission quality.

Qualcomm, a world leader in digital wireless communications, successfully demonstrated in-cabin voice communications using commercially available CDMA mobile phones on a commercial American Airlines aircraft. Through the use of an in-cabin third-generation (3G) ‘picocell’ network, passengers on the test flight were able to place and receive calls as if they were on the ground.

“During the flight, we were able to support about 10 calls, as well as SMS text messages,” Qualcomm Israel’s Boaz Bryger told ISRAEL21c from the company’s Haifa offices. “We tried every combination – incoming and outgoing, from mobile to mobile, land to mobile, etc… The voice quality was good, and the system was stable.”

Bryger is the director of engineering at the company’s Israel headquarters and he headed the engineering team that was in charge of the pico cell project.

“The vast majority of the of the research and development was done in Israel while the business development was done at our headquarters in San Diego,” Bryger said.

The in flight demo was a combination of two QUALCOMM programs: the ‘Wireless Cabin’ R&D project that came out of QC Headquarters in San Diego, and has been active for two years specifically investigating aircraft interference, terrestrial interference and other factors; and the Israeli-office centric picocell project that had also been in development for about two years at the time of the demo, and has been the enabler for the “proof of concept” demonstration for the Wireless Cabin project.

Qualcomm’s Base Station Sytem uses a laptop computer-sized device called a “pico cell” inside the airplane to act like a small cellular tower which interacts with the cell phones on board. The signals are then beamed through a Globalstar satellite for distribution to ground networks.

In cellular phone networks, ‘pico cells’ are the smallest variation of radio cells. Pico cells are used in congested mobile phone areas, such as enterprises, city centers or at exhibition centers, replacing the larger micro cells or macro cells in these areas. The miniaturization of cell structures allows a great increase in the local capacity of mobile phone networks, and that, according to Bryger, is one of the keys for in flight cell phone communication

“Our pico cell program entailed coming up with a reference design for CDMA infrastructure with new attributes – basically dramatically reduced size and cost – which then enables the infrastructure to be deployed on airplanes for example,” he said.

CDMA stands for Code Division Multiple Access – a digital technology pioneered by Qualcomm that is the basis of the project’s success. It provides crystal clear voice quality in a new generation of wireless communications products and services. Using digital encoding “spread spectrum” radio frequency (RF) techniques, CDMA provides much better and cost effective voice quality, privacy, system capacity, and flexibility than other wireless technologies, along with enhanced services such as short messaging, e-mail and Internet access.

A small in-cabin CDMA cellular base station on the plane, that uses standard cellular communications, was connected to the worldwide terrestrial phone network by an air-to-ground Globalstar satellite link.

Bryger explained that the Israeli engineers succeeded in reducing the base station system which comprises of a Base-station Transceiver Sub-system (BTS) and a Base Station Controller (BSC) which controls the BTS – from the traditional size of a refrigerator to the size of a laptop, in order to make it functional in the small space of an airplane.

“The key attributes of the new reference design is the improved size – which influences the cost. The other key attribute is that the cellular infrastructure is implemented using internet technology. The interface between the BSC and the base station, and the cellular switch are all based on IP (internet protocol) standards. What we’ve developed is an IP-based wireless access network.”

“Pico cell technology has become a catchword – it’s really a semi-marketing name for the base station. It’s called pico to indicate that it’s extremely small. Cellular communication is all about cells being transmitted from a base station. Whenever you move the base station indoors, the potential space shrinks, thus the motivation to minimize the size of the base station,” he added.

Qualcomm Israel employs mostly software and hardware engineers. According to Bryger, about 90 percent of the engineers are graduates of the Technion, the prestigious Israeli university. With that clout behind it, Bryger was confident that the Israeli technology involved was up to par, and that the test flight was going to be successful.

“We had done a lot of testing over the previous two years, and the development process was fairly mature,” he said.

“It worked great,” Monte Ford, American Airlines’ chief information officer, and the special flight’s host told a press conference after landing. “I called the office. I called my wife. I called a friend in Paris. They all heard me great, and I could hear them loud and clear.”

According to USA Today, developers of the new technology say travelers will use their cell phones in flight if the price is right. And that right price is probably less than $1 a minute. Customers could pay by entering their credit card numbers when they place a call, or they could see the charges added to their monthly cell phone bills.

“The system, being IP based, makes it very flexible once you want to apply it to other moving scenarios – like cruise ships – or in remote rural areas,” said Bryger.

“Today, we’re in the process of commercializing the system. The technology is here, but there are many regulatory issues with the FAA. The ‘Wireless Cabin’ program team in San Diego has done a lot of engineering work and testing to prove that the system does not cause any interference to communications between the airplane and the flight control on the ground.”

Bryger estimates that the in-flight cell phone will be operable on planes within two years, and within a short time after that, will become a standard feature on all flights.

So then, instead of worrying about your cramped seat and the screaming baby, you’ll have to deal with rows of cell phone communicators. But won’t it be nice to know that a call home is only a touch away, even when you’re a thousand miles away and a mile high?


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