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Emirates latest to offer in-flight mobile

Deal signed by the airline enables travelers to use their mobile phones during flights.

Emirates airline has become the latest air carrier to announce that it will be allowing travelers to use their mobile phones during flights.

The airline has signed a deal with AeroMobile, a specialist in deploying mobile service on airplanes, to offer passengers mile-high GSM connectivity, enabling them to talk and text at prices "comparable" to roaming rates.

The first Emirates plane to feature the AeroMobile kit, a Boeing 777, could be in the air with mobile service by the end of January, pending regulatory approval. In-flight mobile service is expected to get the thumbs-up before the end of 2006.

Only a small number of passengers will be able to use the system at once--just five calls can be handled at a time, routed via a picocell (a localized transmitter) on the aircraft to a satellite and then on to ground-based mobile networks.

Emirates will be able to control the system to limit the annoyance factor of mobile addicts, and will be able to silence chatterboxes on overnight flights by permitting only texts to be sent and received. Passengers will also be told to turn off their phone ringers or set the phones to vibrate during flights.

A number of airlines have to provide mobile connectivity in recent months, including Australian airline Qantas and European budget carrier Ryanair. Plans for some airlines to offer Wi-Fi connectivity stalled earlier this year when Boeing-owned provider Connexion shut up shop, with no replacement supplier having stepped in so far.

AeroMobile has said that GPRS (general packet radio service) will be supported shortly--good news for BlackBerry users--as well as wireless network technologies such as Wi-Fi, CDMA (code division multiple access) and the UMTS (universal mobile telephone system) variant of 3G.

According to recent research by SITA, an airline industry body, around half of all airlines will offer in-flight mobile connectivity by 2008.

Jo Best of ZDNet UK reported from London.