FCC Considers Airline Broadband Connections

By Roy Mark

December 15, 2004

New rules could usher in era of airborne cell phone and laptop use.

WASHINGTON -- Airline passenger use of cell phones and broadband Internet connections took a small step toward reality today when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rolled out several new proposals for ground-to-air communications.

The agency laid out proposed rules for auctioning 4MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band for airline broadband service while opening another proceeding to seek public comment on airborne cell phone use.

The FCC plans to auction new spectrum licenses in three possible band plan configurations with the ultimate configuration to be determined on the results of the auction. To promote competition, the agency imposed an eligibility limitation to prevent a single company from gaining control of the entire 4MHz to be auctioned.

Any plan to beam wireless broadband connections to airplanes or to allow passengers to use cell phones would also need the approval of the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) and the airlines.

To clear the 800MHz spectrum for auction, the FCC also granted Verizon Airfone, the sole current operator in the band, a non-renewable five-year license with narrowband restrictions. According to the FCC, the reduced spectrum for the incumbent air-ground carrier is sufficient to maintain current levels since the spectrum was originally allocated for six carriers.

"Our rules for the 800MHz commercial air-ground service have been locked in a narrowly defined technological and regulatory box and have kept passengers from using their wireless devices on planes," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said. "Nearly every party in the air-ground proceeding has commented that the existing band plan and our rules have hindered the provision of services that are desired by the public."

Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, the two Democrats on the FCC, endorsed the idea of wireless device use on airplanes, but questioned the fairness of the auction process. Both regulators said the proposed auction rules create a situation where only one company can win enough spectrum to provide advanced ground-to-air broadband.

"While a future auction likely will result in two unique licenses, it is agreed that a licensee with one megahertz of spectrum will be unable to compete against a licensee with three megahertz for a true broadband service," Adelstein said.

Copps, participating in the FCC meeting by telephone, said the auction structure guarantees airlines will be left with only one supplier and passengers with no choice.

"Experience shows that if a company has a chance to buy a monopoly license, it will pay a premium for it. That is because it allows them, in one fell swoop, to ensure that competitors will not be able to keep prices down or force them to innovate," Copps said.

The FCC's cell phone plan proposes to permit the use of off the shelf wireless handsets as long as the devices operate at their lowest possible power setting. The airline would connect the cell phone to an onboard pico cell, which would relay the signal to a ground station.

The agency is seeking public comment on whether its airline cell phone use plan should apply only to devices operating in the 800MHz cellular band, or whether devices using other bands such as PCS should also be included.

Both the FCC and the FAA currently ban the use of cell phones on airplanes out of concerns about interference with terrestrial ground stations and the airplane's navigational systems.

"The adoption of this [rule] will help ensure that the commission's rules do not necessarily restrict the availability of airborne wireless services should the FAA and aircraft operators permit the use of airborne wireless devices," Powell said.



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