The line between mobile phone calls and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls is growing thinner all the time due to a rapid increase in the use of mobile VoIP for making calls. Mobile VoIP is revolutionizing business phone systems, and many landline and mobile calls make use of VoIP technologies without customers even noticing.
The use of VoIP was bound to brush up against policies and regulations sooner or later, and on May 8, Delta Airlines passenger Talmon Marco was reprimanded for using his phone to make a VoIP call while en route from New Orleans to New York. He was met at the gate in New York by Port Authority police, who questioned and then released him.
Marco, founder and CEO of Viber, a company that created a smartphone app for mobile VoIP calls, argues that VoIP is not the same as a mobile phone call (which would be disallowed under FAA rules), while Delta at first begged to differ. Eventually Delta justified their reprimand of Marco by saying that his actions violated the terms and conditions of the inflight internet provider Gogo.
Is Using Mobile VoIP Equivalent to Using a Mobile Phone?
Yes and no. To the user, the experience of using mobile VoIP is (in ideal WiFi coverage situations) just like making a normal phone call. However, instead of using typical mobile phone networks, the call is connected over the internet, so on the technical end of things, a VoIP call is not like making a normal mobile phone call.
Is Using Mobile VoIP Equivalent to Surfing the Internet?
Again, the answer is both yes and no. If you're the one participating in a VoIP call, the experience is not like surfing the net, but like making a call. But how the VoIP call takes place is similar to how people send and receive information over the internet through instant messaging.
How VoIP Works
Traditional mobile phones actually communicate by radio frequencies and each phone has a low-power transmitter in it. In every city, each carrier has a Mobile Telephone Switching Office, or MTSO. The MTSO coordinates the frequencies your phone uses when you make a call, which allows you to talk to someone on their cell phone by what is essentially a sophisticated two-way radio.
If you are traveling while you talk, the base station you're leaving and the base station you're getting close to coordinate through the MTSO and the call is handed off from one base station to another as you travel without you noticing it.
With VoIP, you can place a call anywhere broadband is available.
VoIP uses packet switching to transmit voice data. When one party to the call is speaking, only half the connection is actually being used. When neither party is talking, no data is transmitted. The voice data packet of someone speaking travels to the other party along any one of thousands of possible digital routes. Here's what happens:
The computer sending the voice data slices and dices it into small data packets, each with an address telling the network where it should be sent. The sending computer sends the data packet to a router, which sends it to another router closer to the person receiving the call, and another and another, until the data packet gets to the receiving computer and is reassembled into its original state (the sound of the sender's voice). Packet switching is highly efficient and sends data along the cheapest and least congested lines, which is why VoIP calls cost so much less than regular cell phone calls.
The prohibitions on mobile phone calls in flight have to do with radio frequency transmission, which is what the plane's flight deck uses. Airlines want to eliminate, as much as possible, the chances that a stray radio frequency transmission could affect the flight equipment. VoIP, which travels via internet, does not present this problem, which was the reason Mr. Marco believed he was not doing anything illegal when he made the VoIP call on the Delta flight.
Once Marco pointed out that he was not using the cell network, the Delta flight attendant cited a policy stating that airlines block VoIP call applications not due to any FAA safety requirements, but because the airlines want to address "the overwhelming majority of their customers, who prefer silent communications to the public nature of Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) calls." In other words, nobody wants to spend their flight next to a loud cell phone talker. Delta later officially said that the VoIP call was in violation of the terms of service of Gogo, Delta's in-flight internet provider. Instant messages and email transmission are not prohibited, however.
The Future of In-Flight VoIP Calls
In the United States, 85% of flights provide access to the internet, which costs passengers an average of about $3.00 per hour, and which may provide patchy connectivity and slow data speeds.
In the UK, telecommunications provider Inmarsat plans to team up with the American company Honeywell to deliver global in-flight internet that includes VoIP service. Using the satellites to be launched by Inmarsat, 100% coverage is anticipated, with data speeds of 10 to 50 Mbps. The UK anticipates reduced cost or free access starting in 2013.
Whether the Inmarsat-Honeywell project will affect U.S. flights and how soon it could be available is not yet clear. In the meantime, however, stick to in-flight email or instant messaging and hold off on placing VoIP calls unless you want to face a welcoming party of law enforcement officers when you land.