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

NEWS ANALYSIS: The FCC issues a report and order allowing the use of satellite antennas on aircraft that would allow passengers to access the Internet while in flight.

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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...