Two news stories in the last few weeks highlight a mobile communications dilemma. There's a time to talk and a time to refrain from talking. One person's mobile flexibility is another's annoying conversation.
First, increasing the opportunity, and the use of mobile devices while flying.
The positive push is coming from two directions, aircraft manufacturers, and carriers. Although the aircraft aviation authorities currently ban cellular phone use due to concerns about interference, manufacturers believe that improvements in technology will remove the risks, and that unconstrained mobile usage might be in place by 2006. The likely route is for on board micro cells to be built into planes, which then route call traffic to a ground station for onward connection.
German carrier Lufthansa already has some flights experiencing online connectivity, with eight aircraft on the routes between Munich and Los Angeles and Munich and Tokyo offering wireless LAN connectivity from 30,000 feet with its FlyNet service. In a trial of the service last year, Lufthansa found that across 155 flights, an average of 50 to 80 passengers were online simultaneously.
In the US, manufacturer Boeing has plans to incorporate IT office connectivity into its strategy for in flight entertainment with six hours connectivity estimated to be charged at around $30. So I guess the real question is, who will be doing the billing, and who will pay? The airline carrier versus manufacturer relationship is starting to look like the one between mobile operator and handset manufacturer, with the only certain source of payment being the user.
If you're a business user, connectivity is important while flying. For some it's important to have it, for others it has been nice not to. Whilst mobile data access for 80 aboard a transatlantic flight might not inconvenience the other passengers, mobile voice access for 80 certainly would. As has been found on railway carriages, excluding mobile communication is often welcome. Both to those seeking to escape the noise of others, and those seeking to escape being called. Some consumers will no doubt welcome another form of entertainment to relieve the tedium of travel, but will there be enough for carriers to recoup their investment, and will an increase in cabin noise levels have other effects?
As for improvements in interference technology, how about mobile communications resistant wallpaper? This is from a development from UK technology research company, QinetiQ, formerly part of the Ministry of Defence. The idea is based on that used in stealth technology, and would allow certain frequencies to be blocked and others to pass through.
The breakthrough is in the production process, as previously it was too expensive to manufacture such materials. This chemical process forms a special pattern that affects and blocks certain frequencies, but not others. The resultant material could be used in all sorts of applications, from protecting sensitive equipment, to providing quiet zones for hospitals, cinemas and perhaps even travellers. Since the material can be frequency specific, mobile phone signals could be excluded, but emergency services radios permitted. The technology does at least allow some barriers to be placed on otherwise unconstrained mobile signals, and will also undoubtedly find uses in enhancing barrier security for businesses.
This all highlights some issues for mobile etiquette. As coverage grows to include places we previously thought were isolated, remote or hidden, and the user community grows to encompass everyone, the problems will only grow. Technology may provide some help, but it will not provide the answers to what is inevitably a social, and somewhat commercially driven, issue.