By Lance Ulanoff
It’s been more than a week since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, flying out of Malaysia and bound for Beijing, China, disappeared. The search for the plane, now part of a criminal investigation, spans thousands and thousands of miles. With the missing Boeing 777 are 239 souls, their fate unknown and the possibilities heart-wrenching.
The desperation for resolution is so keen that the idea that technology could somehow, even now, reconnect the lost with their loved ones is seized upon -– only to be debunked by clearer heads.
Technology is so often the solution that it’s hard to imagine it could fail us so completely. So we soldier on with new theories.
Were they pinging?
It’s estimated that one in five people around the world now owns a smartphone. By that measure, we can safely assume that roughly 50 people on that flight were carrying data-capable smartphones. Add in feature phones, and the number of mobile devices on MH370 probably grows significantly.
A recent Consumer Electronics Association Study reported that 30% of flyers forget to power-down their devices during take-off and landing. So it’s fair to assume that at least some small percentage of flight MH370 passengers may have had their phones on for the duration of the flight. It’s also possible that others powered up their phones when the plane diverted course.
Which leads to the possibility that cellphones onboard flight MH370 were pinging cell towers (looking for a network signal) on the ground.
Experts, however, are less certain.
The limits of cell tower technology
It’s true, smartphones in the air can connect with cell towers on the ground. These towers, depending on technology (GSM, CDMA), have a range of connectivity that goes up to miles. GSM tops out at about 21 miles. Plus, it only takes one tower to achieve connectivity.
Of course, when you’re flying on an airplane, said tech and wireless analyst Jeff Kagan, “you’re connecting from cell tower, to cell tower, to cell tower very quickly,” and that’s assuming you’re flying relatively low and over densely populated cities.
Flight MH370 was apparently cruising at 35,000 when it disappeared. That’s more than double what Kagan sees as a workable range for cell-tower connectivity.
Let’s say, though, for the sake of argument, that the plane was, as some have reported, flying at 5,000 feet in an effort to avoid radar detection. That’s well within connectivity rage.
However, if you look at the embedded ESRI map, you’ll note that the population densities for most of MH370’s flight path are relatively low. This is critical because the cell providers that operate in those areas, China Mobile and Celcom, would naturally add more towers in densely populated areas, where the bandwidth needs are greatest, and, probably, worry less about cell coverage for largely uninhabited areas.
Then there’s the water.
Much of flight MH370’s journey may have been over water. As far as Kagan, who’s been tracking the industry for 30 years, knows, no cell company is currently dotting the seas with cell towers.
Kagan, though, isn’t willing to say that a random ping or connectivity wasn’t achieved at some point. “I’m not going to say there was never any connection, because I don’t know where it was flying or how high it was flying.”
What about 9/11?
13 years ago, a series of desperate phone calls helped paint the shocking picture of the last moments of the passengers and crews of the three 9/11 hijacked airplanes. A number of those calls were apparently made with cellphones, even though some of them may have been conducted at altitudes that are technically impossible.
The 9/11 investigation site Consensus911.org points out both the conflicting evidence and reports, but fails to reach much of a conclusion.
If you believe the initial report that some 9/11 calls to the ground were conducted while the airplanes were above 35,000 feet, then it’s plausible that flight MH370 passengers who had working cellphones could have reached ground-based cell-towers at almost any point and almost any altitude.
Up to this point, however, not a single piece of communication from MH370 has emerged.
Other connection options
If cell service failed the passengers, what about GPS? Unfortunately, GPS is not a two-way communication system. The GPS chip in your phone communicates with satellites, each of which tells you where it is, so your phone can figure out — based on how long it takes the signals to travel back and forth between your phone and the satellites — where it is. The satellite knows nothing about you or where you are.
Cellphone towers can, too, be used to triangulate your position, but considering how fast a plane flies (at least 600 mph), the likelihood that you’d be able to find a cluster of cell towers and hold onto their signal for more than a millisecond is minimal.
Inside the plane
Even if not a single passenger had an active cellphone or was able to pick up a cell signal, the plane’s first class may have been equipped with a rudimentary air-to-ground communication system. According to Malaysia Airline’s Business Class page, the in-seat entertainment systems include air-to-ground phones that also let passengers send and receive emails “midflight.” Thus far, we have yet to see or hear of a single inflight message from the missing jet, which could mean this flight was not equipped with the Business Class system.
Passengers and social
Finding social interactions before or (far less likely) during the flight is made more difficult because the majority of the passengers are Chinese and use Chinese language-only social networks like Weibo.
At press time, only a handful of pre-flight social media interactions have emerged. The Straits Times reported one passenger, Zhang Jianwu, 31, posted this reply to a query about his location on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, “You guess?” wrote Zhang.
Shortly before the flight, according to Fz.com, 26-year-old passenger Yue Wen Chao posted a picture of his girlfriend and this note, “See you in Beijing.”
It’s hard to believe that not one of the 239 passengers and crew members had the ability, time or wherewithal to get out a single message or that even one not-in-airplane-mode phone or tablet didn’t ping a single cell tower. Yet, as Kagan notes, we have trouble imagining a disconnected world, when that still, by and large, is the reality of international flight. According to a 2013 report by travel data company RouteHappy, just 6.5% of international flights have Wi-Fi. Contrast that with U.S. domestic, where 38% of the flights are ready to connect you to the Internet.
“In 2104, we think we’re always connected,” said Kagan, “it’s the world we live in, but when you’re flying in a plane you’re not connected to that world.”