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Boston airport tries to kill free Wi-Fi node

Continental offers free wireless in its lounge. The agency running Logan Airport sells it for $7.95 a day, and doesn't like competition.

Boston's Logan International Airport is attempting to pull the plug on Continental Airlines' free Wi-Fi node, which competes with the airport's $7.95-a-day pay service.

In an escalating series of threatening letters sent over the last few weeks, airport officials have pledged to "take all necessary steps to have the (Wi-Fi) antenna removed" from Continental's frequent flyer lounge. Continental's free service poses an "unacceptable potential risk" to communications gear used by the state police and the Transportation Security Administration, the letters claim.

For its part, Continental says that a 1996 law prevents local officials from meddling with wireless service and has asked the Federal Communications Commission to intervene. Its letter to the FCC argues that the agency has "exclusive jurisdiction" over Wi-Fi and should keep local authorities at bay.

"We believe that offering free Wi-Fi at Boston's Logan airport is consistent with the FCC's regulations and its prior rulings on similar issues and that it is permissible under the terms of our lease," Continental spokeswoman Julie King said Wednesday. The airline provides free wireless access at all of its Presidents Club lounges worldwide.

The Massachusetts Port Authority, or Massport, the state government agency that operates Logan airport, was not available for comment.

At stake is a sizable chunk of revenue that Massport receives from its pay-per-use Wi-Fi service, which is operated by a commercial provider called Advanced Wireless Group. Massport did not respond to queries about the current sum, but the Boston Globe reported two years ago that the contract gives Massport "up to a maximum of 20 percent of annual gross revenues, which could exceed $1 million annually."

Whether Continental will be allowed to continue its free service in its Presidents Club lounge may depend on the FCC's interpretation of an obscure set of rules that grew out of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. While Congress appears to have intended to authorize outdoor antennas and satellite dishes under a certain size, the airline claims the law covers Wi-Fi antennas built into access points--an interpretation the FCC also mentions on its Web page on the topic.

Massport is conceding nothing. Deborah Lau Kee, an attorney for the state agency, wrote in a July 5 letter that the FCC's regulations may not even be "lawful." Kee added that Continental is free to purchase access from Massport's partner at a "very reasonable rate structure for airline use based on the number of emplanements at Logan airport or on the number of 'hits.'"

The FCC has started its investigation of Continental's request and is accepting public comments until Aug. 29.