On-Board Telephones

The ability to be connected is now paramount, especially in business aviation, and one product or service will not satisfy everyone.


Anymore, it seems like everything in life revolves around staying in touch. The newspapers are full of advertisements listing the various rate plans and incentives while television commercials broadcast today’s hottest stars giving testimony as to why their service provider gives the most bang for the buck.

The equipment being sold goes from the most basic to extravagant or even lavish. Many of the wireless phones in use today can take pictures or video, play music, and even enable the user to access email and tie into other computer files. It is no longer required to even hold the telephone to your ear while placing or receiving calls.

Like many in our business I too have succumbed to “being connected” and now carry two phones and yes, one will allow me to connect to my email. In a previous life I was a tech rep for an aircraft manufacturer, a job requiring frequent travel and often more than 3,000 minutes a month in cell phone calls. I used to relish the time spent on commercial airlines, as my phone had to be switched off prior to departure, plus I am one of the lucky ones in that turbine engines running tend to lull me to sleep (unless of course I am under one doing what I do). Of course with voice and text messages, once I arrived at my destination it would sometimes take more than an hour to get “caught up.”

Numerous studies have been conducted regarding the usage of personal cell phones on aircraft. The results are mixed. The ability to be connected is now paramount especially in business aviation, and similar to the selection of a personal cell phone, one product or service will not satisfy everyone.

When planning for an airborne telecommunication system several factors need to be considered. What are the expectations? Will voice calling be enough or is there a need for fax and data? The aircraft’s primary mission and destinations may have an impact. One question to ask is if global coverage is needed.

Ground-based or satellite?

There are two general types of communication systems. The first uses a network of ground-based stations that are strategically located throughout a certain geographical area. This will provide voice calling, fax, and even data transfer as long as the aircraft is operating within the confines of the ground- based network. A dominant service provider here is Magnastar. The second relies on communication satellites orbiting the earth. These devices are generically referred to as satellite phone systems. Three of the leading service suppliers include Inmarsat, Iridium, and Globalstar.

Inmarsat is an international telecommunications company founded in 1979, originally as an intergovernmental organization. It operates a fleet of 11 (as of 2005) geosynchronous telecommunications satellites.

Inmarsat provides telephone and data services to users worldwide, using aircraft on-board receiver transmitters called “terminals.” An Inmarsat terminal contacts the satellite and communicates to a ground station through the satellite. It provides reliable communications services to a range of governments, aid agencies, media outlets, and businesses needing to communicate in remote regions or where there is no reliable terrestrial network.

Services include traditional voice calls, low-level data tracking systems, and high-speed data services as well as distress and safety services. The most recent of these provides general packet radio service (GPRS) type data at up to 144 k bit/s via the Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) Internet Protocol (IP) satellite modem which is about the size of a notebook computer. Other services provide mobile Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) services used by the media for live reporting on world events via videophone. This is currently the only airborne telecommunication system recognized by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) for communication with Air Traffic Control (ATC).

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