FCC Proposes Expansion of In-Flight WiFi

The Commission proposes to establish an air-ground mobile broadband service, using a ground-based network to communicate with planes.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took action to expand the availability of in-flight broadband connectivity to airline passengers, an announcement that is sure to delight bandwidth-hungry Web surfers cruising the skies.

The FCC announcement said more options for in-flight broadband are likely to increase competition, improve the quality of service and lead to lower prices. The Commission proposes to establish an air-ground mobile broadband service, using a ground-based network to communicate with planes, by taking advantage of technical innovations to expand sharing of certain spectrum among users.

In addition, improved connectivity benefits business and leisure travelers alike in their desire for ubiquitous broadband access to keep in touch with work, family and friends while flying. Expanded availability of in-flight WiFi will also help meet demand from travelers to connect to a full range of communications services while flying in the contiguous United States.

There are two types of current in-flight broadband service: satellite-based and air-to-ground and both are licensed by the FCC. The satellite systems, known as Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft (ESAA), use satellite antennas installed on the top of planes to communicate with satellite space stations. This service, operated by multiple licensees, shares 1 GHz of spectrum among the licensees and with many other Fixed-Satellite Service operators. Air-to-ground systems deliver in-flight broadband through a ground-based network that communicates with an antenna on the bottom of a plane, which connects to an onboard WiFi system providing service throughout the cabin.

The current air-ground licensee operates with just 4 MHz in the 800 MHz band. The FCC’s proposal is focused on meeting the growing demand for in-flight broadband by freeing up spectrum for use for air-to-ground services.The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposes technical rules to assure that the service’s operations will not cause harmful interference. It also seeks comment on licensing rules by which the Commission would license the service in either two 250-megahertz blocks, one 500-megahertz block, or some other spectrum block size. The notice proposes to award these licenses by auction.

"We’ve worked to free up spectrum for use with traditional auctions. We've worked to reallocate spectrum for mobile broadband from both commercial and government bands, and we've worked to share spectrum where reallocation isn't possible," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "We’ve removed regulatory barriers to terrestrial and other flexible spectrum use. We’ve cleared new bands for mobile broadband. And we’ve freed up unlicensed spectrum for dynamic use."

Demand for ubiquitous broadband connectivity continues to grow, particularly on airplanes, with predictions that the number of aircraft offering broadband service will rise from approximately 3,000 in 2012 to 15,000 by 2021, the FCC’s report noted. In 2012 the organization authorized ESAA to provide broadband service to passengers aboard aircraft, but unfortunately, current broadband options for aircraft passengers generally carry a premium price and offer substantially lower speeds than terrestrial broadband.