Consumer Watchdog: Call and fly? Dig deep

By Celeste Gorrell Anstiss

Mobile phone services from aeroplanes will remain 'stupidly expensive'.

Pictured are Jodie Ahern with her children, Gia, Nathan and Luke Hughes.
Photo / Doug Sherring
Pictured are Jodie Ahern with her children, Gia, Nathan and Luke Hughes. Photo / Doug Sherring

Sky-high prices for inflight mobile phone services are likely to remain expensive for the foreseeable future, says a telco commentator.

Hefty costs of $3 to $14 a minute - even in New Zealand skies - have limited the popularity of the service.

Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand chief executive Paul Brislen said high costs were unlikely to go down because airlines had a captive market. The technology also relied on expensive satellites as part of the way communications were relayed.

Brislen described costs as "stupidly expensive" and said they shouldn't have to be.

He wanted research into whether calls and texts from mobile phones still interfered with flight systems.

"Twenty years ago, phones put out a lot of power but that is no longer the case, so I'd rather see research done so we know for sure if phones still interfere," he said.

The research hadn't been done because it was of no benefit to the service providers.

"If the phone doesn't interfere with the plane systems, then there is no need for the expensive technology that is being used now," he said.

"And the phone companies can't charge like wounded bulls."

Most phone companies - including Vodafone, Telecom XP, 2Degrees and TelstraClear - offered the inflight roaming services on selected international and domestic flights.

The technology allowed mobile phones to receive and make calls and send text messages and emails during the cruise stage of flights.

When a call was made or a text sent, a small cell site on the plane relayed it to a satellite.

The satellite transmitted the data to a base station on the ground which contacted the mobile network.

Emma Carter from Vodafone said the prices reflected the wholesale cost to the phone company.

The company said the service was initially aimed at flyers with urgent calls to make rather than those passing time chatting while in the air.

Brislen said another obvious reason for high prices was "crowd control".

"The airlines are quite aware no one wants to get stuck next to someone talking for hours on a flight."

Close call with big bill

On an Air New Zealand flight to Queenstown two weeks ago, Auckland mum Jodie Ahern heard an announcement that mobile phones could be used, but there was no mention of rates.

"I was sitting away from my two sons and I was terrified they would start calling and texting their friends," she said.

Ahern later learned her sons had tried to text but couldn't because they hadn't switched their phones to roaming. "I was relieved because we would have had a big bill."

Charges for the service, on selected domestic and international flights, appear under roaming charges on mobile phone bills.

- Herald on Sunday

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