Wednesday, May 29, 2024

In-Flight Cell Phones Get a No

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Talk of Wi-Fi in the skies is again on the rise after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (define) announced this week that cellular phones on passenger flights would be a big no-no. Even the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) agreed.

The question remained, what about other types of wireless for Internet connections? Apparently, that’s still going to be okay, much to the relief of the Wi-Fi Alliance and companies like AirCell.

AirCell said two years ago it wanted to put Wi-Fi in airplanes using a series of towers that would wirelessly connect to the flying craft for backhaul. At the time, it was going to compete with Connexion by Boeing, a service using satellite backhaul that has since gone buh-bye after spending $1 billion.

Last year, AirCell won an air-to-ground 3MHz spectrum license in an auction from the FCC that cost the company $31.3 million (JetBlue’s LiveTV also won some spectrum in the 1MHz band for $7 million, but hasn’t announced plans for it yet).

The Wall Street Journal has reported that in-the-air hotspots could be a reality by the end of this year. However, those who are happy about the mobile phone ban, nervous that this will still mean lots of chatter as users whip out their Skype phones, will be happy to know that (at least initially) voice over IP on such in-flight Wi-Fi services will be blocked.

The FCC’s cell phone ban doesn’t necessarily indicate the tech is bad for planes as much as it indicates the agency doesn’t want to worry about it any more. The inquiry into allowing mobile phone use on planes goes back to 1991, with the current investigation begun in 2004. The FCC’s termination of the inquiry is based upon a lack of technical information currently available, even though a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) advisory committee called the RTCA is still studying the effects of portable electronic devices (PEDs) on airborne aircraft systems. They’re looking at the use of picocells — hardware for short-range broadcast of the cellular signals mobile phones use — but apparently the FCC didn’t want to wait, and it said as much, stating, “It is apparent that it is premature to decide the issues raised in the Notice.” Probably just as telling is the range of public comments the FCC received, with a majority balking at the chatter that cell users could cause on planes.

Even the flight attendants’ union was against the cell phones, underscoring that it’s a social issue as much as a technology issue. But no one, it seems, is against road warriors surfing the Web from their tray tables.

Colorado-based AirCell hopes to have commercial services on US planes sometime in early 2008 — the cost per plane is likely to be as high as $100,000 to install. Airlines would share revenue with AirCell to recoup some of that cost.

If the service is successful, AirCell’s connection towers would then spread to the rest of North America and the Caribbean. The company’s Web site describes the broadband service’s backhaul connection as based on CDMA EV-DO — which says a lot for EV-DO if it can stay connected to planes in the air moving several hundred miles per hour.

This article was first published on

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