FCC proposes freeing up more spectrum for in-flight Wi-Fi

The FCC unanimously votes to take comments on a proposal that would auction off 500MHz worth of wireless spectrum for in-flight Wi-Fi, greatly adding to capacity and speed of the service.

Marguerite Reardon
Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
4 min read
FCC Commissioners L to R: Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, Chairman Julius Genachowski, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, and Commissioner Ajit Pai. FCC

Gadget lovers rejoice. Commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission have high hopes for making Wi-Fi onboard airplanes more ubiquitous, cheaper, and faster.

On Thursday, the FCC voted to look into a proposal that would free up additional wireless spectrum for in-flight broadband use, a move that will likely increase availability and speed of in-flight Wi-Fi. And ultimately it could help lower prices for the service.

Currently, only about 4MHz of wireless spectrum is being used for the so-called ground-to-air service that enables some airlines to offer in-flight broadband. The way it works is that signals are transmitted from towers on the ground to planes flying overhead. The proposal that is now open for public comment would add an additional 500MHz of spectrum to that allocation.

What this means for travelers is that not only will onboard Wi-Fi likely be available on more planes, but the speeds and capacity of these networks will be greatly improved. The FCC estimates expanding spectrum for this service could provide speeds up to 300Gbps. Of course, this doesn't mean that every passenger would get this kind of speed. Wireless service is shared among all those using it. But increasing overall speed and capacity for users on planes will greatly improve the service for all. And that means that people will likely be able to stream high-definition movies and other entertainment while onboard a flight. They will also be able to answer e-mail and surf Web sites.

Currently, the main in-flight Internet provider is Gogo, which charges a fee to access its Wi-Fi service on airplanes. The service is often slow, and the prices are relatively high. While it's unlikely that Wi-Fi service on airplanes will ever be completely free, if the FCC is able to open up additional spectrum for it, there could be more competition in the market. And more competition might lead to lower prices, which would make in-flight Wi-Fi available to a wider audience of customers.

Virgin America passengers hold up their wireless devices inside an Airbus A320 about 35,000 feet above San Francisco at the launch of the carrier's in-flight Gogo Wi-Fi Internet service in 2008. Virgin America

Gogo will likely be one of many companies that will be interested in bidding on the new spectrum if it's made available. The company isn't commenting beyond its FCC filings on the new proposal. But for the most part, it supports getting more spectrum on the market for in-flight Wi-Fi.

The company is looking for more spectrum in order to deliver its service. It has recently signed deals with satellite companies such as Intelsat SA, Immarsat PLC, and SES SA to provide Internet access on planes. The satellite services transmit signals from satellites to planes, which is more expensive than the ground-to-air system Gogo operates on its own. The satellite-based service is more useful for trans-Atlantic and other international flights in which ground-to-tower connections aren't available. The additional spectrum the FCC is considering freeing up could be used to increase service on domestic flights.

Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, which both use the Gogo Wi-Fi service, have told the FCC that in-flight broadband use is increasing. And they also support more spectrum allocation for the service.

Mobile chipmaker Qualcomm is another supporter of the FCC's plans to free up additional spectrum. The company hopes to become one of the major equipment makers for gear used to provide the Wi-Fi service onboard planes.

Critics warn of interference

But some critics are skeptical of the FCC's proposal. The spectrum that will be used for this service is in the 14GHz to 14.5GHz band. This spectrum is currently used for transmitting some satellite services, including the transmission of video for cable news operators. There is some concern from existing license holders that the ground-to-air service could interfere with their services.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said during the agency's open meeting Thursday that he expects to hear from every interested party as part of the proposed rule making. And he is confident that solutions can be implemented to ensure primary spectrum rights holders can operate alongside in-flight broadband providers without interference.

The FCC's push for more spectrum for in-flight broadband comes as the agency and the flying public question the Federal Aviation Administration's requirement to shut down electronic devices for airplane take-off and landing. In December, Genachowski sent a letter to the FAA to ask it to "enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable devices" during flights.

"This review comes at a time of tremendous innovation, as mobile devices are increasingly interwoven in our daily lives," Genachowski wrote in his letter. "They empower people to stay informed and connected with friends and family, and they enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness."

Congressional leaders also have pressed the FAA to change its policies on gadgets in flight. The FAA began a review of its gadget policies during flights last summer. It's expected to amend its policy by the end of the year, according to The New York Times.

Chairman Genachowski also said that the agency's inquiry into freeing up additional spectrum is part of an ongoing effort to get more wireless spectrum allocated for mobile broadband use. In 2012, Congress authorized the agency to conduct the first-ever reverse-spectrum auction to allow TV broadcasters to sell unused wireless spectrum to the mobile broadband industry.

The agency plans to have a report outlining the rules of the auction by the end of the year. And it expects to hold the auction next year. The agency also has been looking to free up other slivers of spectrum, including some currently used by the federal government.

Genachowski has announced that he will be stepping down from his post as chairman. His last day will be May 17. The White House last week named former lobbyist and venture capitalist Tom Wheeler as his replacement. The appointment still needs Senate confirmation. In the meantime, Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburne will act as chairman after Genachowski steps down.