GSM SIM Cards Proposed For In-Flight Calls

The service could allow airlines, as well as business jet owners and operators, to reuse the technology they already have on their aircraft.

William Gardner

March 24, 2009

2 Min Read
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There's a new use for all those GSM SIM cards: In combination with entertainment screens and seat-back phones in commercial airliners, the cards can provide roaming-free in-flight GSM calls. But not in the United States.

Israeli company Skuku and German company TriaGnoSys announced Tuesday that they've formed a partnership to provide the GSM calling services, which can enable passengers to avoid costly roaming charges for in-flight calls.

"It's just a simple software upgrade," said Colin Blou, Skuku's VP of sales and marketing, in an interview. "The technology doesn't interfere with [any electronics on the plane]." Utilizing the Skuku technology, the SIM card data connects with ground-based GSM servers to provide passengers with voice and instant messaging features.

TriaGnoSys, a specialist in aeronautical communications, has provided the engineering for the service. "The TriaGnoSys/Skuku service will allow airlines, as well as business jet owners and operators, to exploit the technology they already have on their aircraft," said Axel Jahn, managing director of TriaGnoSys, who noted that the installation process is a simple software upgrade and avoids expensive hardware fittings. "In addition, Skuku's technology can easily be integrated into current generation IP-enabled in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems."

The two executives said they are in discussions with two potential customers -- one could use the technology on business jets, the other could use it in IFE systems.

While the initial service is aimed at GSM users and would link them either via ground-based towers and servers or via Iridium or Globalstar satellite modems, the service could eventually be offered for CDMA mobile phone users, too.

Who will pay for the service?

Skuku and TriaGnoSys have been talking up different revenue models. Passengers could simply pay with a credit card on a flight or through a subscription model. Also, an airline could offer the service to its passengers as an additional benefit.

Cell phone calling is already offered on many European commercial airliner flights through OnAir, which utilizes Inmarsat SwiftBroadband satellite services for mobile phones with GSM, which is the near-universal cell phone standard in Europe. Jahn said European passengers have made it clear that they like their access to SMS and voice calling on flights. New British Airways flights to the United States with OnAir service shut it off as planes approach U.S. shores. While cell phone use is banned on U.S. flights, Jahn said he hopes U.S. regulatory restrictions will one day be lifted. U.S. airline crews have opposed cell phone usage, and the Wi-Fi-based services being rolled out by several U.S. airlines ban voice calls.

"From the passengers' perspective, using the Skuku/TriaGnoSys service is very similar to current in-flight mobile phones services" in Europe, said Blou. "Passengers can continue to use their mobile number and contacts list, and they are billed through their normal bills at national rates without having to pay costly roaming charges."

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