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FCC Plan Seeks More and Better Airline Wi-Fi Connections

FCC Plan Seeks More and Better Airline Wi-Fi Connections
May 10, 2013 2:36PM

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Internet connection through cellular networks or Wi-Fi is already available on many commuter railroads and subways, and new cars are increasingly coming out of the factory wired, too. Airliners have gradually phased in Wi-Fi as a premium service, with some now offering it free as a promotion. The FCC is pushing for more and better Wi-Fi service in the air.

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In the next phase of its seemingly never-ending quest to ensure better Internet access for all Americans, the Federal Communications Commission is calling on airlines to put faster Wi-Fi on planes, with spectrum licenses to be sold at auction.

The federal agency on Friday proposed establishing an "air-ground mobile broadband service" that would share spectrum among users.

"Expanded availability of in-flight Wi-Fi will help meet demand from travelers to connect to a full range of communications services while flying in the contiguous United States," said the agency in a statement, noting that greater competition for access will lead to better quality and lower prices -- the same argument the FCC makes in pushing for greater high-speed broadband access on the ground, including in rural areas that are under-served or unserved.

How To Divvy Up Spectrum

The commission is proposing this new service as "a secondary allocation in the 14.0-14.5 GHz band, the same band used by satellite companies for Fixed-Satellite Service uplinks on a primary basis and by certain Federal services on a secondary basis."

The FCC has filed a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for technical rules to assure that the service's operations will not cause harmful interference, as well as comment on how to divide up the licenses: In two 250-megahertz blocks, one 500-megahertz block, or some other spectrum block size.

"Wi-Fi has been available in the air for a few years now," said technology consultant Jeff Kagan. "This is the latest attempt to speed up the connection. Think of it like moving from the old fashioned and slow dial-up connection when we used phone lines to the new broadband lines we have today.

"Both connect to the Web, but one is must faster and lets you do much more because of the speed."

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Internet connection through cellular networks or Wi-Fi is already available on many commuter railroads and subways, and new cars are increasingly coming out of the factory wired, too (creating more worries about driver distraction). Planes have gradually phased in Wi-Fi as a premium service, with some now offering it free as a promotion. Delta is providing free Wi-Fi service for BlackBerry users through June 30. But passengers are not permitted to use their smartphone data plans.

"You still have to turn off your connection to your cell phone network," Kagan said. "However, once you are up in the air you can turn on the Wi-Fi connection. They use two different signals. Wi-Fi uses a signal generated from the plane itself. Cell phone connectivity comes from the ground towers."

More Wi-Fi on flights with a faster connection, he noted, will eventually open the door for Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls through phones and tablets without using 3G or 4G, which airlines fear will interfere with the airplane's guidance systems.

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