TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: FCC to Vote on Wireless Access on Planes

FCC to Vote on Wireless Access on Planes

Lisa Minter (
Wed, 15 Dec 2004 09:57:07 EST

[Lisa Minter note: As this issue of the Digest was being edited and
prepared, the Associated Press news radio announced that the vote
had been done and approved. Lisa M.]

WASHINGTON - Federal regulators plan to vote Wednesday whether to
allow air travelers wireless high-speed Internet access. And they plan
to talk about, without a vote, whether to end the cell phone ban.

The Federal Communications Commission also is looking again at the
contentious issue of how to increase competition for local phone

First, however, commissioners plan to deal with the airline issue.

When it comes to communication, commercial airline passengers go from
the Internet Age to the Stone Age once a plane takes off. They can't
get a high-speed connection for their laptops. They can't use a
wireless connection to check e-mail on domestic flights. They can't
use their cell phones at all.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a
passenger group, said the changes under consideration would "make
business travelers more efficient and while away the time for a lot of
other passengers. This is all the wave of the future here."

Currently, the only way passengers on domestic flights can communicate
with the ground is through phones usually built into the seat
backs. That service isn't very popular: It costs far more than
conventional or cell phones; about $3.99 a minute; and the reception
often is poor.

Of the three companies that initially offered that service on
commercial jets, only Verizon Airfone remains. It has phones on about
1,500 jets.

The FCC is considering a measure that would restructure how
frequencies for such "air-to-ground" services are used and allow the
airlines to offer wireless high-speed Internet connections.

Debate continues over how many companies the FCC would allow, through
an auction, to offer such services. Verizon Airfone maintains that
letting one company handle the service would ensure the best quality,
and existing technology can't support two competitors.

Others including Boeing Co. and AirCell argue for two competitors to
prevent one company from having a monopoly.

Once plans are completed and planes outfitted with the equipment,
wireless high-speed Internet access might be found on commercial
domestic flights by 2006, said Jack Blumenstein, chairman and CEO of
Louisville, Colo.-based AirCell.

The timeline on when air travelers would be able to start using cell
phones in flight is murkier, in part because both the FCC and the
Federal Aviation Administration ban the practice.

The FCC took up the issue Wednesday in an effort to start public
discussion, and commissioners might eventually relax the rules or lift
the ban entirely. Of most concern to FCC officials is how using a cell
phone in an airplane would interfere with cell phone use on the

The FAA is worried mainly about how airborne cell phone use would
interfere with a plane's navigation and electrical systems, agency
spokeswoman Laura Brown said. The technology used on seat-back phones
and being considered for use for wireless Internet hookups causes no

The FAA has commissioned a private, independent firm to study the
issue, and results aren't due until 2006. The FAA will not make its
decision on cell phone use until after the study is completed, Brown

Allowing high-speed Internet access and cell phone use on planes could
offer cash-strapped airline companies a new source for revenues, said
Doug Wills, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the major
airlines' trade group.

Still, airlines must weigh the demand for such service against the
desire of other passengers for a quiet cabin, Wills said. "Some people
see a cell-free environment as a good thing," he said.

The FCC could also take another stab Wednesday at rewriting
regulations about local phone competition. The FCC's efforts have been
overturned by courts three times, most recently in March by the
U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The court threw out agency rules that allowed states to require
regional carriers to lease parts of their networks to competitors at
deep discounts.

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