Who Needs Sleep, Anyway?

I'm usually a pretty mellow guy. But there are three things that drive me completely batty. There's pineapple on pizza, for one. Going light on the gravy for Thanksgiving dinner makes the list, too. But neither gets me as hot under the collar as the dude sitting next to me on the train who yells into his cell phone. Sadly, all of us may be seeing more of him next year. That's when Boeing's (NYSE: BA  ) Connexion unit expects to begin selling in-flight cellular phone service, according to a Reuters report from this week's Paris Air Show. Sigh.

The service would probably mirror Connexion's broadband Internet service, which has been gaining traction. Indeed, according to the Reuters report, the number of jets expected to receive in-flight broadband is expected to nearly double by the end of the year, to 120. But that's a drop in the bucket: Boeing is already on record saying 8,000 commercial airliners are suitable for in-flight broadband Internet. It's a good bet that executives have similar expectations in rolling out cell phone service.

But it won't be easy pickings for Boeing, provided the idea gains traction among consumers, as expected. Privately held AirCell and OnAir are both developing in-flight cellular networks. OnAir, reports Reuters, is backed by Boeing rival Airbus. That means there's an expectation of demand. Where there's demand, there's money. Lots of it. And that means the Federal Communications Commission might consider lifting the U.S. ban on using cell phones in the air.

If you're wondering how the airlines could charge for something they might not even see you doing, think about this: Planes would have to have miniature cell towers installed in order to channel your cell phone calls -- incoming and outgoing. These "pico" cell towers would be linked to networks on the ground, but they'd have to operate on a separate frequency to avoid causing interference with standard, on-the-ground wireless traffic. Your call gets routed over that frequency, and your provider gets pinged roaming charges, which, in turn, get passed to you. Sounds fun, eh?

Still, there may be good news here for the Fool in all of us. I hate to admit it, but this widely despised development -- indeed, a poll conducted in April by flight attendants and the National Consumers League indicates U.S. passengers overwhelmingly oppose onboard cell phone service -- is reminiscent of classic Rule Breaking. Think about it: A massive market appears to be available, but few expect the FCC to let Connexion or anyone else tap the available dollars.

Investing where others won't is exactly how multibagger profits are earned in the stock market. So, much as I hate this idea, I'll be watching to see what the FCC does. And, in the meantime, tracking Connexion to see whether it can become the multibillion-dollar business Boeing believes it can. Just let me get some sleep first, OK?

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers used to sleep well. Before he and his wife had three kids, that is. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile, which is here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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