Australian Airline Passengers Can Now Use Phones In Flight Mode, But Full Internet Access Could Be Closer Than You Think

(Photo: Getty Images)

Passengers flying Qantas and Virgin are, from today, able to keep their smartphones and tablets switched on for the entire duration of their flight.

There’s one big problem with this, though: devices still need to be in flight mode, which means no internet access. But regulators believe WiFi internet access in the skies may not be far off, and Telstra has been working on a system that could even allow full 4G access to customers at 30,000 feet.

CASA corporate communication manager Peter Gibson told Business Insider adapting in-flight WiFi capabilities was an imminent reality.

“The next step then, is to have the ability to leave them in broadcast mode… if the airlines want it we would look at the issues relating to electromagnetic interference and safety prior to approving any developments,” he said.

“There are always going to be cabin safety issues that need to be considered. For example, if phone calls were to be permitted, how would you get passengers to listen and pay attention to in-flight safety briefings and other important updates?” he said.

The Australian airlines hope giving customers continuous access to personal devices will increase their appeal as they engage in a heated price war.

Telstra, meanwhile, has been developing a new 4G LTE network for use on Aussie aircraft, called Skinet.

Earlier this year, the telco giant began testing the capability of this new technology, building four dedicated mobile towers which point skywards and cover most of the commercial air route from Melbourne to Sydney – one of the five busiest air corridors in the world.

The company has been testing the technology this year on borrowed aircraft, and was able to “successfully establish and maintain data connections, achieving a maximum data throughput of 15 Mbps, with an average throughput around 10 Mbps,” according to a blog post on the telco’s Exchange blog by operations executive director of networks Mike Wright back in May.

Following significant investment over the past two years, Australia’s 4G networks now boast lightning-fast download speeds (up to 24.5 Mbps) and substantial penetration rates, according to OpenSignal’s State of LTE 2014 report.

Qantas trialled in-flight Wi-Fi capabilities on a few of its Airbus A380 superjumbos throughout March and April 2012, however the airline ditched the service due to a lack of consumer interest.

While the future of Skinet is still unclear, Telstra is confident in the potential to deliver high-speed broadband connectivity to a range of aircraft-based applications, extending beyond the realms of consumer usage to remote monitoring and control practices.

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