Wi-Fi a Winner in Logan Airport Dispute

By Roy Mark

November 02, 2006

FCC rules airlines free to offer wireless services in competition with airport Wi-Fi facilities.

Wi-Fi competition at Boston's Logan Airport is alive and well, thanks to a Wednesday ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC unanimously sided with Continental in a dispute with the airport over Wi-Fi hotspots. The commission said allowing multiple Wi-Fi suppliers at Logan causes no interference to the "safety-of-life" communications network the airport operates on its dedicated public safety channels.

"Today's declaratory ruling reaffirms the Commission's dedication to promoting the widespread deployment of unlicensed Wi-Fi devices," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement.

Copps added that consumers and businesses are "free to install Wi-Fi antennas -- just as they are free to install antennas for video programming and other fixed wireless applications."

The dispute began two years ago, when the airport's operator, the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), moved to stop the airline from offering Wi-Fi in its frequent flyer lounge. Instead, Massport wanted Continental to use the airport's exclusive wireless carrier.

Continental offers its Wi-Fi service for free while Massport charges an $8 daily fee for its service.

When negotiations failed to resolve the dispute, Continental filed a petition with the FCC for relief from Massport's rules.

Under FCC rules, Wi-Fi is an unlicensed service that uses the same frequency as garage door openers, cordless phones and baby monitors.

Continental called the ruling a "resounding victory" for consumers.

"The FCC has affirmed its rules pertaining to the installation and use of wireless antennae, which prohibit landlords, such as airports, from restricting this service in areas under the control of the airline," the airline said in a statement.

Massport did not respond to a request for comment.

The Alliance for Public Technology, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, Media Access Project, a group of six state public utility commissioners, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), Enterprise Wireless Alliance, and T-Mobile all supported Continental's FCC petition.

In addition, the FCC received more than 2,000 single-paragraph responses from individuals who urged the agency to grant Continental's petition.

The Airports Council International as well as a number of individual airport authorities filed comments in support of Massport's position.

"CEA filed comments in support of this petition as we believe that making Wi-Fi available serves the traveling public, allowing anytime, anywhere connectivity," CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro said in a statement.

"The availability of Wi-Fi devices and service is needed to encourage broadband deployment, which will provide enormous benefits to consumers and our economy."

The dispute began in July of 2004 when Continental installed a Wi-Fi antenna in its President's Club at Logan. By June, Massport demanded the airline remove the antenna, claiming its installation violated Continental's lease agreement with Logan Airport.

Continental countered it was allowed to install Wi-Fi under the FCC's over-the-air reception device (OTARD) rules, which were originally written to prohibit landlords from forcing tenants to accept landlord-controlled television services.

In 2000, the FCC extended its OTARD ruled to cover to apply to fixed wireless services.

"Wi-Fi is one of the Commission's greatest wireless success stories," Copps said. "The genius of this unlicensed technology is that no central authority controls or manages how and where these networks spring up. Instead, any private or commercial operator who sees a need for a local Wi-Fi network may build and operate one."

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