RealTime IT News

FCC: Cells Not on a Plane

Cell phone use for American fliers is out for the foreseeable future, but onboard broadband connections are scheduled to debut as early as next year, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

In a unanimous ruling issued Tuesday, the FCC said it is terminating its airline cell phone use proceeding, launched in 2004, stating the inquiry provided insufficient technical information about possible interference with terrestrial networks and airline navigational systems.

Because "airlines, manufacturers and wireless providers are still researching the use of cell phones and other PEDs [personal electronic devices] onboard aircraft, the FCC found that it would be premature to seek further comment at this juncture," the agency said in a statement.

What is not premature, however, is the coming availability of airline broadband connections using cabin Wi-Fi hotspots. In the same proceeding that the FCC began to investigate cell phone use, the agency also began the process to wirelessly connect fliers with the Internet.

While the cell proceeding hit a rocky road from the beginning with opposition from the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) and negative comments from consumers concerned over cell phone cabin chatter, onboard broadband connections did not.

"[Today's] order does not affect broadband Internet access," Chelsea Fallon, a spokesman for the FCC's Wireless Bureau, said.

Last year, AirCell, a Louisville, Colo.-based technology firm, bid $31.3 million for a 4MHz slice of the spectrum being vacated by Verizon's Airfone service. AirFone currently operates in the spectrum offering air-to-ground telephone service. The company dropped out of the bidding early and must vacate the spectrum by the end of the year.

According to AirCell's Web site, the company plans a U.S. coast-to-coast ground network that will be available to all domestic airline carriers in early 2008. Wireless devices that use the 802.11b or 802.11g Wi-Fi standards, including laptops, PDA's, BlackBerrys and portable gaming systems, will work with the service. AirCell claims per diem and subscription options will be available, reportedly as low as $10 a day.

The company did not return a request for comment.

Fliers with an onboard broadband connection may not, however, be able to complete VoIP calls. That would still require approval by the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration.

AirCell will not be the first company to roll out airline broadband service. Last June, Boeing announced it was abandoning its Connexion service, which was never offered on U.S. airlines due to a lack of interest. Launched in 2001, the service ultimately attracted only 12 airlines, mostly Asian and long-haul carriers.

Connexion charged a flat fee of $26.95 for long-haul flights or $9.95 per hour.

Besides the high price, Connexion's onboard equipment weighed more than 800 pounds. AirCell, which has been offering air-to-ground communications for private planes for a number of years, said its onboard equipment weighs only 40 pounds.