Malaysian Air flight 370: Could cell phone have really made calls?

Weeks after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a new analysis of satellite data suggests that the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak said Monday.

But with the plane’s exact location still unknown and the fate of the 239 passengers unclear, many are combing back through the data gathered in the hunt for the passenger plane. One strange bit of evidence that turned up almost immediately sticks out: claims by relatives that they were able to place calls to the cell phones of loved ones and even reach the voicemail in-boxes of the missing.

Unfortunately, a ringing cellphone doesn’t say anything about the party on the other end, explained Jeff Kagan, a well-known cellular industry analyst.

“We are used to the landline world. When you dial a number and hear ringing, it is ringing on the other end,” he told via email.

“However wireless is different.”

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Any ringing the family members heard wasn’t replicated on the other end of the line. Instead, the ringing sound a cell phone makes in your ear is essentially a mask for the emptiness that would otherwise exist as the network looks for and attempts to reach the number you’ve dialed, he explained.

“With a wireless call, you dial and hit send, then you hear ringing. However it is not ringing on the other end. What is happening is the network is searching for the other phone. That can take up to several rings,” Kagan said. “If it does not find the phone, it cannot complete the call.”

When the network can’t complete a call, it drops it, presents a generic recorded message, or sends the call to voice mail.

Representatives for the major cellular carries either did not respond or declined to offer additional details for this story. The CTIA, a trade group representing the wireless industry, also declined to comment, referring to outside analysts.