FCC Considers Airline Broadband Connections

WASHINGTON — Airline passenger use of cell phones and broadband Internet
connections took a small step toward reality today when the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) rolled out several new proposals for
ground-to-air communications.

The agency laid out proposed rules for auctioning 4MHz of spectrum in the
800MHz band for airline broadband service while opening another proceeding
to seek public comment on airborne cell phone use.

The FCC plans to auction new spectrum licenses in three possible band plan
configurations with the ultimate configuration to be determined on the
results of the auction. To promote competition, the agency imposed an
eligibility limitation to prevent a single company from gaining control of
the entire 4MHz to be auctioned.

Any plan to beam wireless broadband connections to airplanes or to allow
passengers to use cell phones would also need the approval of the Federal
Aviation Agency (FAA) and the airlines.

To clear the 800MHz spectrum for auction, the FCC also granted Verizon
Airfone, the sole current operator in the band, a non-renewable five-year
license with narrowband restrictions. According to the FCC, the reduced
spectrum for the incumbent air-ground carrier is sufficient to maintain
current levels since the spectrum was originally allocated for six carriers.

“Our rules for the 800MHz commercial air-ground service have been locked in
a narrowly defined technological and regulatory box and have kept passengers
from using their wireless devices on planes,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell
said. “Nearly every party in the air-ground proceeding has commented that
the existing band plan and our rules have hindered the provision of services
that are desired by the public.”

Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, the two Democrats on the
FCC, endorsed the idea of wireless device use on airplanes, but questioned
the fairness of the auction process. Both regulators said the proposed
auction rules create a situation where only one company can win enough
spectrum to provide advanced ground-to-air broadband.

“While a future auction likely will result in two unique licenses, it is
agreed that a licensee with one megahertz of spectrum will be unable to
compete against a licensee with three megahertz for a true broadband
service,” Adelstein said.

Copps, participating in the FCC meeting by telephone, said the auction
structure guarantees airlines will be left with only one supplier and
passengers with no choice.

“Experience shows that if a company has a chance to buy a monopoly license,
it will pay a premium for it. That is because it allows them, in one fell
swoop, to ensure that competitors will not be able to keep prices down or
force them to innovate,” Copps said.

The FCC’s cell phone plan proposes to permit the use of off the shelf
wireless handsets 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 seeking public comment on whether its airline cell phone use
plan 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.

“The adoption of this [rule] will help ensure that the commission’s rules do
not necessarily restrict the availability of airborne wireless services
should the FAA and aircraft operators permit the use of airborne wireless
devices,” Powell said.

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