Missing Malaysian Jetliner: Could Phone Tracking Help?

Telecommunications experts say the odds that passengers' cellphone data can help locate the missing Malaysian jetliner are next to zero.

Locating the mobile phones of the 239 travelers on the Boeing 777 that vanished Saturday isn't as simple as activating a "Find My iPhone" app, given the speed the plane was traveling, its altitude and the fact it was probably flying over water. Many people assume smartphones to be all-powerful tracking devices. Often police, rescue units and others can use a person's phone to pinpoint the user's precise location. Even so, there are large portions of the planet that don't have the transmission towers that are necessary for mobile communications. In the case of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, smartphones are unlikely to lead investigators to the plane.

Here's what you need to know about mobile connections and how they're used to determine location:

Q: Can telecommunications providers remotely locate a phone?

A: Yes, if the phone is tuned on and is connected to either a cellular or Wi-Fi network, says Ritch Blasi, senior vice president for mobile and wireless at the consulting firm Comunicano. Apps like "Find My iPhone" only function properly when a phone is able to receive a location signal from a GPS satellite and relay that signal via cell connection or Wi-Fi to those who are searching for it.

Q: Does this change when you're on a plane?

A: Yes, considerably. For one thing, most airlines require passengers to turn their phones off or at least put them in airplane mode before takeoff. That means there's no connection to a cellular network, says Blasi. Even if some passengers left their phones on during Flight 370, it would be tough for their phones to connect with a tower given the speeds planes travel at and the altitudes involved.

Q: What about flying over the ocean?


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