In Flight Wi-Fi Internet Improvements Approved By FCC
May 10, 2013

In Flight Wi-Fi Internet Improvements Approved By FCC

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

It could soon be easier to do some surfing while flying high.

On Thursday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed auctioning off the rights to newly available airwaves, which could improve in-flight Wi-Fi connections. The agency approved new rules that would increase the available spectrum for air-to-ground broadband service, and commissioners at the government agency believe the passage of these new rules could drive competition, improve the quality of Internet available during air flights and lead to lower prices.

This latest approval could see San Diego-based Qualcomm take on Carlsbad-based satellite operator ViaSat as they both attempt to fly high in the in-flight Wi-Fi business. This market is expected to grow as fliers — notably business travelers — look to get the same level of speed that is available at home or on smartphones and other mobile devices.

“Today´s airline passengers expect the same level of broadband service that is available on the ground,” said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in a statement to U-T San Diego. “It appears, however, that current in-flight options carry higher prices but offer much lower speeds than terrestrial broadband.”

In 2011 chip maker Qualcomm had requested that the FCC consider allowing shared access of the dedicated satellite spectrum as a way to establish cellular air-to-ground mobile broadband service. Currently air-to-ground broadband connectivity is covered within a 4 MHz allocation, and this new FCC proposal could increase that allocation to 500 MHz.

“More options for in-flight broadband are likely to increase competition, improve the quality of service, and lead to lower prices. Improved connectivity benefits business and leisure travelers alike in their desire for ubiquitous broadband access to keep in touch with work, family, and friends while flying. The Commission proposes to establish this air-ground mobile broadband service as a secondary allocation in the 14.0-14.5 GHz band, the same band used by satellite companies for Fixed-Satellite Service (FSS) uplinks on a primary basis and by certain Federal services on a secondary basis. The service would be required to protect primary FSS in the band from harmful interference and to coordinate with other users in the band,” according to an FCC document posted on Thursday.

The agency will reportedly accept comments on the proposal for 60 days, and look to address concerns on whether the new service could interfere with current communications.

So far there has been at least one detractor. The Satellite Industry Association (SIA) has filed with the commission “detailed technical analyses that demonstrate that the proposed air-ground service would cause interference into the satellite services,” reported The New York Times' Edward Wyatt.

Even after the comment phase it could still take at least a couple of years before any new Wi-Fi service on aircraft is actually ready to take, but it is believed that this proposal could offer increased options to the slow and expensive Wi-Fi that is now available on only on some domestic flights.

There are now two types of technologies that are used to provide Wi-Fi to aircraft, and these include one from the ground that connects dedicated cellular towers to an antenna that is mounted to the bottom of the plane; while the other system utilizes satellites that link to an antenna on top of a plane.

Currently in-flight service is limited to about 3 megabits per second; roughly half the speed of the average household DSL connection and one-third the average wired broadband speed. The new system would share the 14.0-14.5 GHz band of the electromagnetic spectrum, which would be capable of transmitting data at up to 300 gigabits per second — or 30 times the speed of average home broadband.

“The reality is that we expect and often need to be able to get online 24/7, at home, in an office or on a plane,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, said at a meeting where the commission voted four to zero to begin the necessary steps towards in-flight Wi-Fi. “This will enable business and leisure travelers aboard aircraft in the United States to be more productive and have more choices in entertainment, communications and social media, and it could lower prices.”