FCC Order to Increase Availability of Airline In-Flight Internet Access

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-12-29

FCC Order to Increase Availability of Airline In-Flight Internet Access

I like flying at Flight Level 380, or 38,000 feet for you non-pilots. It's usually peaceful up there. Most turbulence doesn't reach that high and the view is great. But suppose you're not interested in the view because you have work to do?

Unfortunately, when you're back there in Economy, the best you can do is work on your cached email and maybe get some writing done. But you can't check for new email, and you can't deliver those projects you've completed until after you land.

This remains the case unless of course you have booked a flight on one of the few airlines that have outfitted a few of their airplanes with WiFi and Internet access. If you don't mind paying for it, you can get slow Internet access. I found this service in March 2012 on a Lufthansa flight on my way to CeBIT. The cost is about $15 per hour, and the service is provided by T-Mobile. Other airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines and Delta, are starting to offer on-board WiFi.

The arrangements that allow this to happen require both approval from the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration. Each airline had to work individually with the respective federal agencies to make this happen. It has been a complex process and it takes time. But now, through a report and order issued by the FCC, the process has been streamlined, meaning that the FCC will issue the necessary approvals much more quickly than in the past.

What this means is that you can expect to see WiFi on your flight much more often. Eventually, it will become the rule rather than the exception. You can be immersed in your email all the way from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, and you'll get no rest but be so productive your boss will make you travel even more often than you already do.

Yes, it's true that every silver lining has a cloud, and that's the case with on-board Internet. But at least for most flights, the worst excesses of people on the Internet aren't likely to be much of a problem. While my experience with on-board Internet is limited, the connections tend to be fairly slow and less than totally reliable. In addition, because most aircraft providing WiFi use satellite links, the latency is pretty bad.

This means that even if your seatmate has a cell phone that does WiFi calling, it's probably not going to be particularly useful, even if the airline allows it to be used.

FCC Order to Increase Availability of Airline In-Flight Internet Access

Likewise, you won't likely see a lot of movie streaming. The low available speeds and the unreliable connection would tend to make watching movies a less than optimal situation. Remember, you're sharing that one satellite link with all the other passengers on the plane.

The airlines, sensing another way they can extract money from you in these days of fees for everything, are all over the idea. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski also thinks it's a good idea. "Whether traveling for work or leisure, Americans increasingly expect broadband access everywhere they go," Genachowski said in a prepared statement.

"These new rules will help airlines and broadband providers offer high-speed Internet to passengers, including by accelerating by up to 50 percent the processing of applications to provide broadband on planes. This will enable providers to bring broadband to planes more efficiently, helping passengers connect with friends, family or the office."

According to the official FCC statement on this report and order, the commission expects this action to significantly reduce the administrative burden on both the applicants and the commission. Effectively, this will save both time and money and should encourage greater adoption of in-flight Internet access.

It's worth noting that this does not implement cell phone service on airplanes, something that the FCC is considering but hasn't yet approved. The implementation of WiFi on flights hasn't had any significant opposition, in contrast to the complaints about possible cell service—mostly because there are a lot of passengers who don't want to listen to phone conversations while they're trying to sleep.

In reality, there are some things that having Internet access on board may help. For example, you can let whoever is meeting you know about changes in arrival time, or you can arrange for that rental car that you forgot about before you left home.

However, the FCC is just one hurdle. The Federal Aviation Administration must also approve any such on-board Internet use as well as on-board WiFi. Currently the FAA, which has to focus on flight-safety issues, is still approving Internet access on airliners on a case-by-case basis. But clearly, as long as the Internet access that an airline is planning to install is in line with existing installations, the FAA is approving them.

But all things considered, I still think I'd rather look at the world from Flight Level 380 than look at email, regardless of how urgent it might be.

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