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A look at advancements in cellular telephone communication, data recorders, and emergency locator transmitters

The last few weeks have been spent thinking about a good topic for this issue and after talking with friends and co-workers, no notable subject jumped right out. I even ventured into the hangar, looked around at the various aircraft that were home and out of the fleet, and couldn’t come up with one significant event that was worth putting in print and that was an eerie feeling. There was however that sensation of impending doom that we all know well which occurs just as contentment sets in.

I then decided to go online and peruse a few web sites that have provided inspiration in the past but still, that perfect topic continued to be elusive.

Cabin communications
One of the things that did come to mind was the subject of cabin communications. Advancements in telephone technology are almost a daily occurrence. Cellular telephone service providers continue to bombard all forms of media with gadgets and operating enhancements. In the general aviation world, satellite phone service is ballooning much like its terrestrial counterpart. The long time alliance of Verizon service with Magnastar airborne equipment has been one of the most recognized marriages in the air to ground telecommunications business and provided a reliable phone network across the continental United States. Recent advancements to celestial communications systems have resulted in reliable and economical data and voice transmissions worldwide. The migration of aircraft operators from terrestrial to celestial systems has resulted in Verizon questioning the longevity of their service. At present continued operation is planned through the end of 2008.

The two leading space based competitors are the Iridium and Inmarsat satellite constellations.

Iridium is an orbital network providing voice and limited data features all over the globe. When an Iridium customer places a call from a handset or terminal, it connects to whatever satellite happens to be overhead, and is relayed among satellites around the globe to whatever satellite is above the appropriate Earth gateway, which downlinks the call and transfers it to the global public voice network or Internet so that it reaches the recipient.

The satellites are in a near-polar orbit at an altitude of 485 miles (780 km). The 66 active satellites fly in formation in six orbital planes, evenly spaced around the planet, each with 11 satellites equally spaced apart from each other in that orbital plane. A single satellite completely circles the Earth once every 100 minutes, traveling at a rate of 16,832 miles per hour, and traveling from horizon to horizon across the sky in about 10 minutes. As a satellite moves out of reach, the call is handed over to the next satellite coming into view.

In February 2007, Iridium announced a bold vision called “Iridium NEXT.” NEXT will replace the company’s current satellite constellation with an even more powerful system before the present level of service is ever compromised due to constellation age.

Aircell is one of the Iridium service suppliers and one of the more prevalent in business aviation. It was Aircell that, in mid 2006 won the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction granting it part of the frequency spectrum that had been used by Verizon and has established a broadband network across a large part of North America.

On Dec. 11, 2007, JetBlue Airways operated the first commercial U.S. airline flight with high-speed in-flight email access. Alaska, American, and Virgin America are the only other U.S. airlines to have publicly announced their plans to offer in-flight Internet access. The JetBlue service, which is complimentary, supports only email on two Blackberry devices and Yahoo! Mail and Messenger, using technology developed through the airline’s LiveTV subsidiary. American Airlines and Virgin America plan to offer full web access using Aircell’s air-to-ground system.

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