Ryanair announces in-flight mobile

Low-cost airline will offer mobile access to passengers, for a price. Fees will "mirror" roaming charges.

Ryanair plans to allow passengers mobile access to voice and text communications on all of its flights. The airline expects to launch the service in mid-2007.

The budget airline announced on Wednesday that it will partner with OnAir, an Airbus and Sita joint in-flight communications venture, which plans to fit the entire Ryanair fleet with technology called Mobile OnAir. Initially, 50 aircraft will be equipped by mid-2007, with further installations following.

"There's clearly a trial element, but we don't have any concerns that people won't use it," Michael O'Leary, Ryanair's chief executive, said at a press briefing in London. "If it doesn't work, clearly it'll come off the aircraft."

Passengers will be charged to make and receive voice calls and SMS messages via satellite broadband links, and will be charged to use push e-mail services such as those that work with BlackBerry handhelds. The connection between the plane and ground is carried by satellite operator Inmarsat.

When asked about the cost of the service, Ryanair said that it would "mirror" international roaming charges, even on national flights. These roaming rates can vary wildly between operators and countries. Ryanair will charge operators a commission on call revenues.

"We're getting a commission from operators, but it's a relatively small commission rate," O'Leary told ZDNet UK.

The companies also need regulatory approval before they can launch the service.

"The regulatory aspect represents some risk to the schedule, but it's not a question of if but when (the plan is approved)," said O'Leary. "It's a big blockage that no one is allowed to use mobiles on aircraft. Once we have regulatory approval, Internet access will follow."

Planes will be fitted with a pico cell--an antenna that works with the global system for mobile communications (GSM) standard. The antenna will be mounted in the ceiling of the aircraft, allowing phones to connect to the satellite link. Because the antenna is close to the mobiles, they require only low power to connect, according to George Cooper, chief executive of OnAir.

"The power output is so low that it doesn't interfere with the avionics," Cooper said.

The ground network will be provided by Monaco Telecom, OnAir's telecommunications partner. Customers will be able to use their phones only above 10,000 feet, which will prevent them from connecting to domestic mobile networks instead.

Air France will be the first airline to trial OnAir's satellite-based technology early next year, followed by the U.K.'s BMI and Portugal's TAP.

Earlier this month, Boeing said it would close its money-losing high-speed broadband communications service, Connexion, which will force the company to take a charge of up to $320 million in the second half of 2006.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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