Fly The Connected Skies... Sometime.... Maybe
By Mike Masnick, Wed Dec 15 18:45:00 GMT 2004

The FCC moved today to make the friendly skies a bit more connected for both data and voice -- but there still are plenty of questions.

The issue concerning in-flight access to wireless voice and data services has always been much more of a "when" not "if" type of question. The demand was just too strong, and technology problems could be overcome. While most previous efforts focused on satellite methods, the next step is more direct-to-ground offerings, usually based on building a mini-cell tower into the plane itself. The FCC took very noticeable steps towards both data and mobile phone connections while in-flight.

The bigger step was in the data space, where the FCC has agreed to auction off spectrum specifically for the purpose of data connections from the plane to the ground. Most of the debate here centers on how many providers there should be. Verizon, who pretty much controls the limited air-to-ground communications market right now thinks there's not enough spectrum to go around for more than itself. Others, not surprisingly, disagree, pointing out that a Verizon monopoly isn't exactly fair to anyone. The FCC's decision to auction spectrum is something of a punt on this issue. It's not clear how many companies will actually be allowed to get this spectrum.

Also, while the idea behind giving away separate spectrum for this specific purpose should avoid problems concerning interference, some may still question whether or not separate spectrum is really needed. As cellular based mobile data networks improve, it's entirely possible that this could be handled by those traditional networks using existing spectrum. Of course, that depends on cellular radios getting permission for use while in-flight, which was the second part of today's FCC activity.

The FCC has finally decided to "take a look" at the issue of allowing mobile phone calls on airplanes, though, today's announcement was very hesitant. Basically, the FCC commissioners said that they're looking for public comment on the issue, including questions about whether or not allowing calls on airplanes would annoy passengers seated next to excessively talkative individuals. The bigger concern is whether or not mobile phones cause problems with on-the-ground towers due to multiple connections to multiple towers and the rapid movement from tower to tower. However, the FCC doesn't get to act alone in this case, as the FAA also has a ban on mobile phone communications, with the concern being more focused on how phones impact airplane navigation equipment. The FAA has asked for a comprehensive independent study on this issue, but that's not expected to be completed until at least 2006. It's likely that this study will show little to no problems -- or at least point to ways to mitigate any real risks. So, for the time being, you still have another two years or so to fly in peace and quiet... unless, of course, you have a talkative neighbor who decides to talk to you instead of someone on the ground somewhere.