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Wi-Fi Hotspot Spat Heats up at Logan

Boston's Logan International Airport wants Continental Airlines to take down an antenna it uses to provide free Wi-Fi access in the airline's frequent flier lounge. Safety, the airport claims, is the issue.

Try rank greed, says Continental.

The airline claims the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), which runs Logan, told Continental it could install Wi-Fi access in its private lounge as long as it made arrangements to route the wireless signal, for a fee, over Logan's existing Wi-Fi backbone.

The only problem with that arrangement, Continental states in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is that Logan's fee for using the airport's Wi-Fi backbone signal exceeds the costs of Continental building and maintaining its own wireless antenna.

The FCC documents state that Logan's fee is based on "enplanements" (passengers boarding an airplane per day) or the total number of "hits" on the airport's wireless network.

In July of last year, believing it was acting within its rights under the lease agreement with Logan, Continental erected an antenna and began offering free Wi-Fi access in its President's Club. A Continental spokeswoman said the airline offers free Wi-Fi in all its frequent flier lounges here and abroad.

Since it does not use Logan's backbone, Continental pays no fee to Logan's third-party wireless provider. In its FCC filing, Continental claims an average of 32 customers a day are using the free Wi-Fi. Continental averages 1,355 enplanements per day at Logan.

Massport's attorneys came calling. It seems Continental's Wi-Fi signal was bleeding outside the President's Club premises and wireless road warriors were quick to skip Logan's fee-based Wi-Fi for the free wireless signal.

Continental lowered the frequency to keep the signal within its President's Club.

By June, Massport decided that Continental was in violation of its lease agreement, and demanded the airline dismantle its antenna. Continental replied that it was not, and further informed Logan officials they were in violation of an obscure FCC regulation known as the Over the Air Reception Devices Rule (OTARD).

According to Continental, OTARD prohibits a landlord from impairing the installation, use or maintenance of an antenna if the impairment "unreasonably increases the cost of installation, maintenance or use."

"On its face, your demand appears to violate the provisions of the federal rule," Continental attorney Donna Katos wrote to the Logan attorneys.

Massport didn't blink.

"Please note that the regulations do not require that the cost to a tenant using a central antenna be equal to or lower than the costs of installing, maintaining and using an individual antenna installed by the tenant," Massport attorneys replied.

The Massport attorneys then rolled out their hole card: "The antenna has interfered with wireless devices outside of Continental's club room."

Citing a "potential threat to public safety caused by Continental's unauthorized and unlawful wireless communications," Massport demanded that Continental take down its antenna by July 9.

Continental took the issue to the FCC, seeking a declaratory ruling to allow the airline to continue to operate its Wi-Fi service and to prohibit Logan from taking any action until the FCC rules.

Massport officials declined to comment as long as the matter is subject to litigation.

Interested parties have until Aug. 29 to file comments in the case.