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Virgin limits in-flight mobile calling service to 10 people

14 May 2012
Virgin Atlantic's Richard Branson and Dita von Teese

Virgin Atlantic has announced it will support in-flight mobile calling on its latest planes, although the service is only available to O2 and Vodafone customers and will be restricted to 10 people at a time.

The service is the first time a British airline has enabled in-flight mobile calls.

Customers flying the 3,500 mile London to New York route will also be able to send or receive SMS or emails, and browse the web via GPRS. The mobile service is available in all cabins, and is targeted at business travellers.

According to AeroMobile, which provides the technology, Virgin has installed a picocell in the aircraft cabin to act as a base station. This means Virgin gets around the interference issues traditionally associated with using a mobile on a plane, as the devices search for a network to use.

British Airways (BA) currently lets passengers on its London City to JFK route send texts or browse the internet on their mobile. However, a BA spokesman told V3 the airline did not plan to extend this to mobile calling.

Virgin's announcement is part of the official unveiling of its new Airbus A330-300, which the airline said also features a redesigned Upper Class cabin with a ‘technology hub’ to connect a smartphone, USB or tablet device.

Virgin said that due to limited bandwidth, only a small number of lines are available at any one time, limiting the service to just 10 of the 300-plus passengers at a time.

Aside from the route, volume and operator limits, there are other restrictions on the service. Mobile use is not permitted during take-off or landing, and US laws mean that devices have to be turned off around 250 miles from US airspace.

Charging for calls, texts and browsing will be based on international roaming fees through O2 or Vodafone.

V3 has contacted both operators to find out whether the charges would be based on standard roaming rates, and how the billing is decided, but we had not heard back at the time of publication.

AeroMobile said it was in ongoing discussions with other UK operators about signing up to its service, so customers of other networks will have to sit tight and just enjoy the onboard entertainment system and inedible food for now.

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Madeline Bennett

Madeline Bennett is editor of V3 and The INQUIRER. Previously, she was editor of IT Week. Prior to becoming a journalist, Madeline was an English teacher at a London secondary school. Madeline is a regular technology commentator on TV and radio, including Sky, BBC and CNN. 

View Madeline's Google+ profile

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