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Flying High; FCC's auction of air-to-ground spectrum could enable in-flight communications
Heather Forsgren Weaver
RCR Wireless News
(c) 2006 Crain Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.
In about a month, the Federal Communications Commission plans to hold an auction that eventually could eliminate the one place that is still a no-cell-phone zone-the airplane.
The prospect of passengers chatting on trans-Atlantic or cross-country flights has some flight attendants and passengers concerned, but federal regulatory agencies-the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration-to date have only focused on interference concerns when addressing cell-phone use in flight.
However, interference is not a factor in the government auction of air-to-ground spectrum, which is already used for communications while in flight. The FAA must approve the use of transmitting devices that work outside of the ATG band (such as phones that operate over cellular networks). While the FCC is considering relaxing those rules, the FAA said that it would continue to ban cell phones on airplanes.
Citing safety concerns and passenger confusion, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA wants the FCC and the FAA to maintain the cell-phone ban.
Devices used in the ATG band likely would be Voice over Internet Protocol phones using a broadband connection deployed by ATG auction winners. Future VoIP phones could look like cell phones, raising the question of how flight attendants would be able to distinguish between approved devices and ones that are not permitted.
"We are going to have to deal with the fact that people are going to make phone calls on airlines. So you have to think about what the airlines are going to do, what the FAA is going to do, what the FCC is going to do. I don't have a clear picture, but it will take everyone working together," said Greg Welch, president and chief executive officer of GlobalTouch Telecom Inc., which has a VoIP product it believes could be used on airplanes. "Ultimately it will be the flight attendants who will decide whether you can talk on the phone."
Welch said he would prefer industry set parameters for in-flight phone use rather than a government mandate. "As a business owner, I would rather the government not tell me what and how to do it."
Welch also wants the government to allow flexible use of the spectrum. "If the FCC believes in network neutrality, they should say it, they should act on it. I think when you are auctioning something, you are trying to give the bidders the maximum ability to recoup and make a profit on their investment. No mandate on what can and cannot be on that spectrum," said Welch.
The government and prospective auction winners are banking on people wanting to be connected everywhere, including airplanes. "We seem to be at a place with this technology that people want Internet access everywhere," said Rich Tehrani, president of Technology Marketing Corp. "If you are business traveler and have a laptop and a BlackBerry, you are going to be connected."
Proponents of talking-while-flying believe it will lead to more productivity.
"It will be extremely positive for productivity... You have now taken a whole class of individuals and made them infinitely more productive," said Tehrani. "There are
decisions that many companies can't make right now because someone is on a flight."
One way the auction winners can make talking-while-flying attractive is to price it at a cost that is reasonable; some critics contend the existing provider, Verizon Airfone, which charges $4 to connect and $4 per minute, is charging too much money.
Tehrani said he believes in-flight broadband could be priced at $15. "The pricing that I have seen thrown out is $15. If there is Wi-Fi on a plane, if it is a fixed cost, people may do it," he said, noting that business users "will spend up to $30 for Internet access."