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Coffee, Tea or Broadband?

The proposed onboard airline broadband service will hit the runway May 10 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to auction off spectrum for a high-flying Internet connection.

The FCC's proposal calls for new spectrum licenses in three possible band plan configurations, with the ultimate configuration to be determined on the results of the auction. In all, the FCC plans to sell 4MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band.

More than a year ago, the FCC stirred up a minor controversy when it proposed both broadband service and individual cell phone use on U.S. commercial flights. The May auction involves only spectrum for broadband use.

In order to promote competition in the air-ground band, the FCC is prohibiting any party from obtaining a controlling interest in new licenses for more than 3MHz of spectrum (either shared or exclusive) in the band.

Under that plan, no single party may hold more than one license in any of the available band configurations.

Verizon Airfone, the only incumbent service provider in the 800MHz air-ground band, has been granted a nonrenewable license to operate in the band for five years.

When the license expires in 2010, Verizon Airfone must transition its incumbent narrowband operations from 4MHz to 1MHz of spectrum in the band within two years of the initial grant date of a new license.

The FCC is also requiring a minimum $100,000 per license upfront deposit to establish eligibility for bidding. According to the FCC, the deposits protect against "frivolous or insincere" bidding and provide the agency with a source of funds from which to collect payments owed at the close of the auction.

New licensees may provide any type of air-ground service, including Voice over IP , data or video. Auction winners must provide service to the aircraft and may not provide ancillary land-mobile or fixed services in the air-ground band.

Although it will not be part of the May 10 auction, the FCC is also proposing to permit the use of off-the-shelf cell phones 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 currently collecting public comments on whether airline cell phone use 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.