Pål Bjørdal: The equipment is not standard GSM
gear. It needs
to meet the safety requirements of the airline
If you live at 30,000 feet, you’re familiar with
the situation every time your aircraft bumps down on the runway
and taxis to the terminal. The cabin crew tells everyone to
keep their seatbelts fastened until the plane has stopped, and
to keep their phones off until the doors are open.
There are two noises that fill the cabin: the clicks of
seatbelts being unclipped, and the bleeps of phones picking up
text messages and emails.
Pål Bjørdal, CEO of AeroMobile, knows the
experience well. "Whenever I go somewhere in longhaul, the
worst part is where you turn the phone on after seven or eight
hours, and there are 30-40 emails to read."
And, he might have added, shuffling along from the aircraft
through passport control and baggage reclaim to the taxi queue
is just the wrong set of places to read and answer urgent work
"Why can’t you use the time onboard if you want
to?" asks Bjørdal. Of course, he has an angle: his
company is busy selling mobile equipment to many of the
The business is small so far: equipment is now installed in 130
aircraft in service, and he expects that there will be 350 by
the end of 2013 and 750 at the end of 2014 — and that
there will then be a surge in installations. "We expect there
will be 7,000 aircraft in five years," he says.
If he’s right, that’s a substantial
proportion of the number of aircraft in service. According to
Usman Ahmed, a senior aviation analyst at the International
Bureau of Aviation, there are about 21,000 jet passenger
aircraft in service, including 4,650 wide-body and 12,500
narrow-body aircraft, plus 3,940 regional jets.
That means AeroMobile — owned by Telenor and Panasonic
— alone hopes to fit about one in three aircraft
within five years. It has a competitor chasing the same market:
OnAir, owned by Airbus along with Sita, the aviation
industry’s IT and telecoms specialist.
There have been two changes that are contributing to this
expected boom in the use of mobiles in the air.
First, AeroMobile has just upgraded its technology to use new
satellite links to the aircraft so that customers have a full
3G wireless broadband service onboard. Second, Boeing has just
started fitting AeroMobile equipment during production,
starting with the 777. That means airlines don’t
have to take aircraft out of revenue-earning service so that
terminal equipment can be installed.
Thai Airways International is the first airline to take
delivery of a Boeing 777 already fitted with equipment from
"Delivery of aircraft fully line-fitted saves airlines time and
cost," says Bjørdal. He hopes "it is only a matter of
time" before both Airbus and Boeing offer to fit satellite
equipment in the factory. And he expects Airbus to offer
airlines a choice between both AeroMobile kit and that from its
Among the airlines that AeroMobile is working with include Aer
Lingus, Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, Emirates, Etihad, Gulf Air,
Lufthansa, Malaysia, SAS, Turkish Airlines, V Australia and
Virgin Atlantic. "There are some large customers that are still
unannounced," he says.
The on-board system essentially consists of a number tiny base
stations that provide 2G and 3G coverage within the cabin,
linked by satellites to the world’s telecoms
networks — just as a remote base station on the ground
might be connected by satellite. Each base station is connected
to a so-called leaky feeder, a cable that runs around the cabin
and acts as an antenna. That’s one of the reasons
retrofitting is expensive.
"The equipment is not standard GSM gear. It needs to meet the
safety requirements of the airline industry," says
Bjørdal, who was appointed CEO in September 2010 after
running Telenor’s Maritime Communications Partner
subsidiary, a specialist in providing satellite services to
Telenor owns just under 50% of AeroMobile, and Panasonic
Avionics — which makes the on-board equipment
— owns the rest. The company is based at Gatwick
airport, just south of London, next to Virgin
"It is good to have a partner that understands the aircraft
side," says Pål Bjørdal. The legal requirements of
certifying airline equipment and the regulatory side of the
business require specialist knowledge.
"It’s a volume business," he says. AeroMobile has
invested heavily in the equipment and in the satellite
infrastructure "and we need a certain volume to maintain the
The company ran its first satellite phone services as long ago
as 2008, with Emirates, but the satellite capacity then was
adequate only for basic voice and SMS. Today’s
satellites offer higher bandwidths and the receiving equipment
on the aircraft automatically switches — a sort of
roaming in reverse — from satellite to satellite as it
flies through the sky.
AeroMobile does not cover four parts of the world. Two of them
are the poles, north and south of about 78 degrees latitude
— well into the Arctic and Antarctic. Another is
India, where there is a lack of suitable satellite provision,
says Bjørdal — though in late October Panasonic
Avionics announced a deal with AsiaSat that is designed to
improve coverage over India and the Middle East.
US mobile phone ban
The fourth white space on the map is the US, where the Federal
Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Authority
still ban the use of mobile phones onboard aircraft. "We have
to issue a warning to passengers when we get to within 200
nautical miles of US airspace, and we cut people off at 120
nautical miles," says Bjørdal.
In addition, equipment is turned off everywhere when the
aircraft is lower than 6,000 feet.
The equipment in each aircraft behaves simply as a local mobile
network, connecting customers directly back to their home
network, which sets tariffs and makes charges for the service.
That means phones and tablets behave just as if their owner
were sitting in a café in Barcelona or in a taxi in
"We have roaming agreements with more than 260 mobile
operators," says Bjørdal. His company has been focusing
its work on the operators with market share among each
airline’s customers. "When we sign up with an
airline we look at the demography of their passengers."
But AeroMobile has another tool at its disposal. The company
can identify an operator whose customers have tried to use its
equipment onboard and have failed — because there was
no roaming deal. "We contact the operator and tell them that
5,000 of its customers tried to attach to the network."
For the operator, that’s missed revenue —
and, perhaps, a discontented customer who has seen fellow
passengers able to keep in touch. "For telcos the most
important thing they sell is connectivity," says
In the UK, for example, Vodafone was the first operator to sign
a roaming deal with the company. It’s been joined
by Telefónica O2 and Hutchison’s Three, but
not yet Everything Everywhere. "We have ongoing discussions.
Hopefully we will be adding them to our list of
For AeroMobile, it’s a long, slow process of
signing up roaming partners — as is the process of
persuading airlines to install equipment onboard. "I never pay
for installation," says Bjørdal. But for the airlines,
"they get a share of the revenue which has been generated".
So does AeroMobile, of course. It sets what is effectively a
wholesale tariff that it charges a network for connecting its
customer. "The telco sets the end user price. Some choose to
add a significant margin, some choose to provide it at the same
rate as other roaming services. And some charge less than we
charge them." That means they make a loss. Bjørdal
clearly isn’t sure of the logic of that.
Some airlines offer wifi service: in the US, it’s
the only alternative. But the advantage of GSM to the airline
is that it takes away the need to think about collecting
revenue from each passenger.
Roaming rates within Europe are not capped by the European
Commission, as are those for voice and data roaming on the
ground, he notes.
So why do so many people insist that using phones onboard
aircraft is dangerous? That’s because, with no
base station nearby, phones will automatically operate at
maximum power to try to pick up a signal. If
there’s a base station onboard, then phones will
work at the lowest power possible. "You have a network onboard
that the phone will attach to immediately," he says.
"We know it is safe, due to the nature of the aircraft itself.
Aircraft types are certified and the equipment is certified."
And the low power increases safety still further. "You still
have to turn off for takeoff and landing. We turn the system on
when we reach 6,000 feet until the aircraft starts descending
And that 6,000 feet limit means there is less chance of
interfering with terrestrial mobile networks. The height limit
means that aircraft and airlines that specialise in short
flights are not a good prospect. "Some very short routes
don’t even get to cruising altitude."
But when you do get the service on a long flight, the available
bandwidth should be 50 megabits a second, says Bjørdal
— though he adds a warning: "If there are a lot of
aircraft within one sector the bandwidth may be shared between
The focus is clearly on data services: on allowing passengers
to read and reply to their emails, send and receive text
messages and check social media and other websites during their
flight. "Between August and September alone we saw a tripling
in traffic," says Bjørdal. "And it doubled again between
September and October."
But that is from a low starting point. "We’re at
the stage where awareness is building." But he sees that
already airlines are starting to develop their strategy.
"I’d say 90% of airlines have a strategy now or
are developing a strategy to connect their customers. In three
to four years most airlines will have a service."
There will, then, be no place to hide from those emails. On the
other hand, there won’t be the stress of
discovering 30 unanswered and urgent messages on your
BlackBerry as you prepare to deal with the rigours of the UK
Border Agency at Heathrow or the Police aux Frontières
at Charles de Gaulle.
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