FCC To Boost Wi-Fi On Planes

May 10, 2013 (05:05 AM EDT)

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The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday outlined plans to establish a high-capacity, ground-based mobile broadband network that will improve the experience of browsing the Web when aloft. The idea is to use satellite spectrum to communicate more effectively with airplanes and thereby improve the in-flight Internet experience.

"Like many Americans, I have been frustrated by the lack of high-speed broadband service when I fly," said Commissioner Ajit Pai. "Some flights don't offer any broadband service at all. Others do, but speeds are usually much slower than what we enjoy on the ground, and it's expensive. So what does this mean? Lower productivity for business travelers and less enjoyable flights for vacationers."

There are already several systems in place. Gogo, for example, offers in-flight Internet through several U.S. airlines, including Delta. Pricing from Gogo ranges between $7 and $15 per flight, depending on the time spent in the air, or the number of flights being taken in a given trip.

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Earlier this year, United Airlines installed Panasonic Avionics Corporation's Ku-band satellite technology on some of its wide-body aircraft in order to provide Wi-Fi Internet service to passengers. Internet service will first be offered on long-haul flights, followed later this year on shorter flights. United is offering two different speeds, and prices vary depending on those speeds and the length of the flight.

Don't get too excited by the FCC's new proposal, however, because the system will likely take years to fully implement.

The FCC took the first step this week, which is to seek comment on the use of the 14.0 GHz to 14.5 GHz band for the network. This spectrum is already in use by the Fixed-Satellite Service (FSS), which has primary use of the spectrum. The government has secondary rights to this spectrum, and that's the slice of airwaves the FCC is proposing to use. Any new system put in place would have to protect the the FSS users from interference. Understandably, the satellite industry is already wary of the plan.

Further, the FCC is seeking comment on how best to carve up and license the airwaves in question. It is looking at two plans: one plan offers two 250-MHz blocks, and the other offers a single 500-MHz block. The FCC hopes the industry will provide details such as technical considerations, as well as provide input on how the auction for this spectrum should proceed. These steps alone will take six to 12 months to complete.

Qualcomm is one of the companies behind the new push to improve in-flight Wi-Fi. The company has earned billions developing the technologies, including the radios, processors and receivers, found in cell phones, tablets, mobile hotspots and laptops. With these markets maturing, Qualcomm is looking for another cash cow. Owning the airplane internet business could be Qualcomm's next big thing.

"Mobile broadband demand on board aircraft is exploding -- just as much, if not more so, than it is on the ground," said Qualcomm in a recent regulatory filing. "Current in-flight communication systems are either too expensive" or don't offer enough capacity. Hence the recent action taken by the FCC.

"We [took] an important step to improve in-flight broadband service," said outgoing FCC Chairman Julis Genachowski. "This service would help meet consumer demand by offering airline passengers access to better in-flight broadband and will increase competitive pressure on current systems to improve the quality of their in-flight services."

Eventually, that is.

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