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FCC Plan to Boost Inflight WiFi Takes Off With Turbulence

FCC Plan to Boost Inflight WiFi Takes Off With Turbulence

Business travelers know that getting decent WiFi on long flights can be a roll of the broadband dice. The FCC may have an answer with a plan to boost bandwidth for inflight wireless that could mean faster, cheaper service. However, questions about a chip company's involvement in the original proposal is fueling objections from some key players, and that could stall the plan worse than a large file being uploaded over slow WiFi.

By Richard Adhikari
05/11/13 5:00 AM PT

As more airlines begin to offer WiFi, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is proposing to increase the bandwidth available for inflight wireless broadband.

The FCC is essentially basing its proposal on Qualcomm's submission to the government from July 2011.

This raises the question of whether the FCC is perhaps too closely tied to one company in this area, and whether it should wait for proposals from other entities before proceeding.

That has caused division among potential players. The Satellite Industry Association and Row44, which offers inflight WiFi, oppose the FCC's proposal while American Airlines and Delta Airlines support it.

However, "This is just a proposal and the FCC is getting the ball rolling with the Qualcomm proposal," Jagdish Rebello, a research director at IHS iSuppli, told TechNewsWorld. "It gets people to think about the issue."

An FCC spokesperson was not immediately available to provide further details.

What The FCC and Qualcomm Propose

The number of aircraft offering broadband service will quintuple from about 3,000 in 2012 to 15,000 by 2021, according to the FCC. The Commission is forwarding Qualcomm's suggestion of tapping into the 14.0 to 14.5 GHz band to provide a secondary service that would not interfere with fixed satellite service (FSS) Earth-to-space communications.

FSS satellites provide broadcast feeds to radio and TV stations and broadcast network and satellite TV, and handle telephony, telecommunications and data communications. The FSS uplink in the U.S. is in the 14.0 to 14.5 GHz band.

To facilitate bandwidth sharing, the FCC proposes spatial diversity, in which antennas used for different services within a given bandwidth are pointed in different directions. This is a technique that is already being used successfully.

The proposed service will provide multigigabit broadband connectivity to aircraft flying within the contiguous U.S., meaning that it won't be available over Hawaii, Puerto Rico and foreign countries. Qualcomm's proposal will see a total of 300 Gbps shared among planes in the air over any one area.

Licensees will be able to use the spectrum for air-ground mobile broadband only. The spectrum will be licensed on a nationwide basis, and the licensee will get a 10-year license. A substantial service performance requirement must be met the end of that period. Licensees must be able to construct and operate base stations that provide robust, uninterrupted service on routes serving at least 50 airports classified as large or medium hubs.

"There is a great need for this service," Philip Solis, a research director at ABI Research, told TechNewsWorld. "The connection on planes is fairly slow, and it can get really slow when more people use WiFi on planes."

Speak Up Now

The FCC's proposal "would use ground stations using spectrum that is meant for satellites, but would be used between the planes and ground stations directly," Solis said.

Perhaps this is why the SIA's objection to the FCC's proposal contends that the proposed service will cause interference to the FSS services using the 14.0-14.5 GHz band.

The FCC is seeking comment on various issues related to its proposal. Interested parties have 45 days after the proposal is published in the Federal Register to file their comments. Reply comments must be filed 75 days after the proposal is published in the Federal Register.

Gotta Get Connected

Consumers "are demanding ubiquitous connectivity, and with more and more content stored in the cloud, consumers will have less access to content in their devices, and it makes sense to have a better connection for that reason," iSuppli's Rebello said.

Over time, the cost of inflight WiFi will go down, he added.

That might help adoption. Dissatisfied customers recently filed an antitrust suit against Gogo, the dominant inflight WiFi services provider, for charging up to nearly $18 for its services. The suit was dismissed without prejudice, which means the complainants can refile their suit with new facts.


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