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

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.

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