Emirates airline says they're the first commercial airline to allow in-flight calls: An A340 in Emirates fleet is hooked up with Aeromobile's technology--an on-board picocell--that places calls via satellite backhaul at a hefty rate. The estimate was $2.50 to $3.50 per minute last year, although it depends on the carrier used. Carriers set the ultimate rate; Aeromobile, just the wholesale rate. Text messaging is supported. As with all such systems, flight crew can pull a switch to disable mobile use; and there will be quiet periods, typically at night. Emirates uniquely had existing demand for seat-back phones-Arab News says 7,000 calls per month are made--which makes sense given their demographic. They'll add GPRS data later in the year.
The BBC article describes Aeromobile's satellite and picocell kit as "a system which stops mobiles from interfering with a plane's electronics," which is mistaken. Rather, a picocell ensures that any potential, not yet seen possibility of out-of-band emissions from mobile devices causing interference would be mitigated, because the picocell allows a cell phone to use the lowest possible signal power.
The system will cost $27m to deploy across the fleet. A second plane, this one a Boeing 777-300, is already retrofitted and will be up and running soon.