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New cell phone technology allows call from flights?

What about all those 9/11 calls?

"Once you get to a certain height, you are no longer in the range of the cellular network, because cell phone towers aren't built to project their signals that high." ~~ Washington Post, 12/9/04

"Today's vote by the FCC is intended to address whether technology has improved to the extent that cell phone calls now are possible above 10,000 feet -- they weren't in the past." ~~ San Francisco Chronicle, 12/15/04

Dear friends,

Below is a very interesting article in USA Today about new technology enabling cell phone use on airplanes. We all know that you need to be within range of a cell phone tower in order to make cell phone calls. The new technology reported below sets up a beacon on planes allowing the use of cell phones. Yet, it is most interesting that all of the newspapers at the time of 9/11 reported multiple cell phone calls from the hijacked planes which could not have been within reach of a cell phone tower. Particularly on Flight 93, which crashed in the countryside of Pennsylvania, numerous calls were reported to have been made using cell phones, with at least one being a 30-minute call. How is this possible? 


Note the claim towards the end of the article: "It was widely known that cell phones will sometimes work on jetliners. Some travelers use them surreptitiously. On Sept. 11, 2001, several passengers aboard hijacked airliners called loved ones." As far as I can tell, this is not at all a widely known fact. In my work as an interpreter, I have at times flown over 50,000 miles a year, yet have never seen or heard of someone making a cell phone call from a plane. Have any of you ever heard of this? Another unanswered question about 9/11. Please help spread the news.


With best wishes,



Note: To find articles showing multiple cell phone use on Sept. 11, 2001, type "9/11" and "cell phone calls" into your favorite search engine, or see [30-minute call] and

Cell phones test positive on AA flight

FORT WORTH (AP) – With television cameramen hovering, Qualcomm chief executive Irwin Jacobs sat in the front row of coach and made one of the first legal cell phone calls from a commercial jetliner. After chatting with a telecom industry lobbyist for a few minutes, Jacobs pronounced the technology behind the airborne phone call a success, although adding that it will be improved over the next couple years.

Jacobs and a group of reporters were aboard an American Airlines jetliner Thursday as it took off from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for a demonstration of Qualcomm's cellular technology at 25,000 feet.

The flight required special clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission, which ban the use of electronic devices abroad planes because of fear they would interfere with navigation systems and cellular networks on the ground.

"It's pretty cool," said Monte Ford, American's top technology official.

Ford said he called his wife, secretary and friends in Paris and Madrid and pronounced the quality of the links good, although he acknowledged the international connections weren't quite as good as domestic ones.

Reporters were given phones with code division multiple access, or CDMA technology, and a few minutes to make and receive calls. Qualcomm commercialized the CDMA technology used in wireless network equipment and licenses system software to cell phone makers.

Connections from the plane were generally good, although some calls were dropped. Sound quality was about the same as a regular cell call on the ground, other than the loud background noise on the MD-80 jet.

There was a delay of about one second in the voice communications, like that encountered when using a satellite phone, which interfered with natural conversation. The delay was caused by the way voices are digitally transmitted in so-called packets from the airplane to the ground.

Also, the caller could not hear the phone ringing on the other end, which caused at least one reporter to hang up while the person on the other end was shouting into the receiver.

Jacobs said San Diego-based Qualcomm would spend the next two years testing whether electronic signals interfered with the jet's avionics system. He also said the technology would be improved and the one-second delay would be shortened.

Eventually, air travelers should be able to make calls, download movies and do all sorts of other things with wireless devices aboard jetliners, he said.

"My guess is we will see the same kind of uses that you have with cell phones on the ground – maybe even more because you're confined to a seat for some time in a plane," Jacobs said.

The cooperation between Qualcomm and American is not exclusive. Qualcomm is talking to other carriers around the world about testing CDMA phones on their jets, and American may talk to other telecommunications companies, officials said.

Qualcomm's CDMA technology is one of a few standards used worldwide to convert voice into digital form for transmission over a wireless network.

American would have an important advantage over competitors if it could become the first U.S. carrier to allow cell phone use on most of its planes, Ford said.

Several years ago, American installed seatback phones, which could be used with a credit card, on many of its planes but ripped them out except in some Boeing 777s and 767s on international routes.

"People found those phones expensive to use and not necessarily convenient," Ford said. "They waited to get on the ground to make calls with their cell phones."

The seatback phones use FAA-approved technology that doesn't interfere with jet navigation systems. Airlines generally charge about $4 a minute plus a $4 access charge.

Even before Thursday it was widely known that cell phones will sometimes work on jetliners. Some travelers use them surreptitiously. On Sept. 11, 2001, several passengers aboard hijacked airliners called loved ones.

However, the FAA and the airlines ban them because they fear that the signals could interfere with navigational equipment. The FCC bans their use from planes because the signals reach many cell-phone towers and have been shown to disrupt cellular networks.

A nonprofit aeronautics group, RTCA Inc., is working on recommendations to the FAA on guidelines for testing wireless devices.

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