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Feds move on wireless Web, cell phones in flight

The FCC will sell spectrum for high-speed Internet access, and wants to allow cell phone use on airplanes.

Federal regulators have proposed allowing cell phones to be used on airplanes, and took steps toward bringing high-speed wireless Internet connections to passengers' seats.

Air travelers will be able to surf the Net while in flight as soon as 2006, and the ban on cell phone use on airplanes could eventually be lifted as well, if moves made Wednesday by the Federal Communications Commission pan out.


What's new:
The FCC is bringing wireless communication to airplanes. Expect wireless Internet in 2006, and possibly the sound of everyone around you yelling into cell phones.

Bottom line:
Great news for business travelers trying to get work done--and for anyone with a laptop who isn't mesmerized by the in-flight magazine. But it could strain delicate etiquette in cramped confines.

To date, wireless devices can't be used once the airplane door is closed. The FCC voted unanimously on Wednesday to auction off new spectrum that could be used to provide high-speed wireless Internet access to planes in flight. Commissioners also took a strong move toward allowing cell phones to be used on airplanes, calling for public comment on the issue. Air travelers who don't like being out of touch with the ground will be able to use wireless connections to check e-mail, surf the Internet, and eventually could make cell phone calls from the air. That could be good news for many business travelers, and probably bad news for those who like a little peace and quiet.

But flyers won't be locking themselves in plane bathrooms for the quiet, or popping tiny bottles of champagne in celebration, any time soon.

"What the FCC did today was simply open the discussion on the use of cell phones in airplanes," said Doug Wills, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a U.S. airline industry lobby group in Washington, D.C. "It will still be a good two to three years before we see the technology in use on commercial planes. There is still a lot of testing that needs to be done."

No dropped calls, no dropped planes
Current rules of both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration ban in-flight cellular calling. The primary FCC concern has been possible disruption of cell phone communication on the ground. The FAA's worry is how cell phones might interfere with a plane's navigation and electrical systems.

At Wednesday's meeting, FCC officials proposed allowing passengers to use "off the shelf" wireless handsets and other devices so long as they operate at their lowest power setting and do not broadcast unwanted radio frequency emissions that could interfere with cellular networks on the ground. The FCC will now seek public comment on these issues. It will also work with the FAA to ensure that FCC rules and policies complement the FAA's efforts.

Engineers at NASA noted at least three years ago that cell phones were being built so well that they emitted remarkably fewer interference-causing spurious radio signals. A NASA engineer said in a 2000 interview that the airplane cell phone ban would be lifted once earlier generations of cell phones wore down and were tossed out or recycled.

But there has been speculation that cell phones have played a role in some airplane crashes. European newspapers have reported that a passenger using a cell phone during takeoff contributed to the crash of a Crossair commuter plane in 2000. All 10 passengers and the crew aboard LX Flight 498 were killed when the plane crashed outside of Zurich minutes after takeoff. An official cause of the crash has not been released.

Airlines and cellular equipment makers have already begun testing technology. In July, Qualcomm and American Airlines conducted a two-hour "proof of concept" flight 30,000 feet over Dallas. They showed off a service on widely used CDMA, or Code Division Multiple Access, technology.

Wi-Fi is ready for takeoff
While it could take years for safety issues to be worked out before cell phones can be used on commercial flights, Wi-Fi technology is ready today since it presents no safety concerns, Wills said.

"There are no interference issues with wireless Internet access on planes," he said. "Just the nature of the technology makes managing data networks easier than cellular networks."

Some international airlines have already begun dabbling in wireless Internet. German carrier Lufthansa plans to offer wireless Internet service on all routes between Munich and Frankfurt by 2006. In May, Lufthansa debuted high-speed Internet access on a flight from Munich to Los Angeles.

Earlier this month, Singapore Airlines announced it would offer Wi-Fi on flights in the Singapore and London corridor. Both airlines are using a service offered by a Boeing subsidiary. The service will let passengers read e-mail and browse the Web through a network set up on the plane. They will also be able to plug their laptops into outlets at every seat.

Singapore Airlines also plans to beam live TV programs to passengers' laptops by mid-2005. The channel lineup will include four international news channels, with sports content to be added later, the airline said.

Because voice and video can be carried over an Internet protocol Wi-Fi network, passengers will be able to use voice enabled Wi-Fi devices to talk to people on the ground.

"It really comes down to a race between cellular and Wi-Fi technology," said Wills.

Price, price, price
More than 60 percent of airlines' revenues come from business travelers, many of whom would love to see more communication options on planes. But whether they will use the service comes down to price. Travel experts warn that if service is too expensive, passengers won't use it.

"There's no question that the business traveler wants to communicate," said Addison Schonland, CEO of Innovation Analysis Group, a travel consulting and research firm. "But how easy will the phone companies and airlines make it for them to do it?"

For over a decade, passengers have been able to use phones built into the backs of airplane seats to make calls to people on the ground. At roughly $1.99 per minute, the service was too expensive and never really caught on. In recent years, airlines have decreased the number of such phones onboard planes. Verizon is the only provider still offering the service.

Airlines, which have struggled financially in recent years, see big opportunity in these new services. They not only can use these services to differentiate themselves from other airlines, but they can potentially use them as new sources of revenue. Wills believes they will not make the same mistake this time that they did with seat-back calling.

"It's in the airlines' best interest to offer an affordable and reliable service to customers," he said.

More vital communication, more annoying headaches?
The steady infiltration of wireless technology might not thrill all air travelers. The many who complain about cell phones being used in restaurants and movie theaters could mourn the loss of one of the last cell-phone-free environments. Airplanes are uncharted territory for practitioners of etiquette-straining "cell yell"--inexplicably shouting into a cell phone regardless of the call's personal nature or who can overhear. Being one narrow seat away from such callers could frazzle some flyers' nerves.

"Can you imagine 200 people talking at once?" Schonland asked. "It will be bedlam. Who will people hate more--the dreaded crying baby or the guy who talked on his cell phone for two and a half hours?"