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Ericsson touts cell network for planes

Amid growing interest in relaxing ban on cell phone use on airplanes, company creates mini cell network for commercial aircraft.

Amid growing interest in relaxing the ban on cell phone use on airplanes, Ericsson said Monday that it has created a mini cell phone network for commercial aircraft.

The gear, also meant for use on ships at sea, is a much slimmer version of Ericsson's RBS 2000, the wireless giant's most popular lineup of cell phone network base stations. Ericsson says the new network can accommodate as many as 60 people at a time using GSM, the world's most popular cell phone standard.

Ericsson joins the cottage industry that has begun supplying air travelers with wireless services ranging from phone calls to the high-speed Wi-Fi wireless access provided by Connexion, a division of airplane maker Boeing, which has installed its gear in about 60 planes.

As shown by the flurry of comments filed recently with the Federal Communications Commission, there is a consensus building to relax rules that, since 1991, have banned cell phone use on U.S. commercial flights. Most observers say it is almost certain that the rules will be relaxed, though it is not yet clear by how much.

Such rule changes aren't expected until December 2006 at the earliest, however, and they likely won't be made until early 2007. The Federal Aviation Administration, which has the ultimate say on the matter, is waiting for the second phase of a study being conducted by an advisory agency, the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics. The private, nonprofit company was organized under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The second phase of the RTCA report, to include its recommendations on in-flight cell phone use, is due by December 2006.