Singapore Airlines to introduce in-flight phone connections and internet access

While many airlines let you make phone calls and send SMS messages via onboard handsets none flying in and out of Australia let you use your own phone or connect your laptop to the net in-flight. This will change next year when Singapore Airlines becomes the first carrier to roll out an in-flight Wi-Fi hotspot and mini cellular phone network on selected aircraft.

The airline has teamed up with in-flight telecommunications provider OnAir to provide Wi-Fi Internet access (at GPRS speeds) for web surfing and messaging and GSM phone connections via a “picocell” system a kind of micro cellular network which connects to ground-based mobile and fixed communications networks via Inmarsat satellites.

To use your phone on a flight you will need to have an international roaming agreement with your Australian network operator in place before boarding. OnAir claims charges will be similar to those for standard global roaming calls and will show up on a passenger’s next phone bill. Making an in-flight call will be the same as placing an international call you dial dial 00 or + followed by the country code and the number.

To access the net passengers will need to sign up to the onboard Wi-Fi hotspot with a credit card. They will be able to connect their laptops or handhelds either via wireless or ethernet ports in the seat armrest or seatback screen. According to OnAir passengers will be able to use phones and access the net during most of the flight or at least when the aircraft is above 4000 feet. Below that height access will be turned off.

Although the picocell system has its critics who say the GPRS internest speeds generated with it are too slow we’re not going to look at gift horse in the mouth. While in-flight communications for your own phones and laptops are available in other parts of the world we’re happy they’re finally being introduced on flights in and out of Australia. Singapore says the services will be rolled out progressively on flights operated by the airline’s giant Airbus A380 Airbus A340-500 and Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. 

OnAir says the planes needs to be equipped with four key components (some of which are packed into an overhead locker in photo above):

  • The picocell which provides the radio interface to mobile phones in the cabin.
  • A server to manage communications centrally
    establishing calls with the ground and interfacing with aircraft systems
  • An air-to-ground modem to allocate air-to-ground resources according to the demands of the server
  • Onboard control equipment (with jammers!) ensures
    that phones and smartphone devices are only able to connect to the OnAir
    network and not ground-based networks.

Singapore Airlines’ Senior Vice President Product & Services Mr Yap Kim Wah said “the environment that our customers have gotten used to on the ground can soon be replicated in the air when they fly with Singapore Airlines on aircraft fitted with this new connectivity platform. Travelling on business or pleasure they are just a click or an SMS away with access to live information social networking and news updates as well as in-flight shopping.”

OnAir is jointly owned by Airbus and SITA an IT and telecommunications provider to airlines which has roaming agreements with about 200 telecommunications companies. Ian Dawkins CEO of OnAir said: “ The agreement is extremely significant. It sends a strong signal to the industry that inflight passenger communications has come of age – and is a must-have for airlines looking to remain competitive in the future.”