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F.C.C. Advances Plan for Faster In-Flight Wi-Fi

F.C.C. Advances Plan for Faster In-Flight Wi-Fi

WASHINGTON — It may soon be easier and faster to surf the Web at 30,000 feet. The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday proposed auctioning off the rights to use newly available airwaves to provide better in-flight Wi-Fi connections, as the government agency seeks to improve the speed and lower the cost of Internet service on commercial flights.

The commission’s proposal is the first step toward a goal that it is likely to take a couple of years, at least, to reach: providing in-flight Internet service that can match or exceed the capabilities that most Americans have at home or can find in coffee shops.

The new format would use a more reliable system of contact between a plane and the ground, agency officials said, and should allow providers to offer more consistent service that is many times faster than the service that many Americans have in their homes.

Although it will be at least a couple of years before the new service is available, federal officials and people in the broadband business expressed excitement that the new format could free airline passengers from being captive to the expensive and rather slow Wi-Fi that is currently available on only some domestic flights.

“The reality is that we expect and often need to be able to get online 24/7, at home, in an office or on a plane,” Julius Genachowski, the F.C.C. chairman, said at a meeting where the commission voted 4 to 0 to begin the necessary steps. “This will enable business and leisure travelers aboard aircraft in the United States to be more productive and have more choices in entertainment, communications and social media, and it could lower prices.”

The agency’s plan calls for the sale of one or more licenses to allow an Internet service provider to share certain airwaves with satellite communications companies. Those airwaves would then be used for an air-to-ground system of connections that employs cellphone towers.

Before the auction, the agency will have to decide how many licenses to grant in the 500-megahertz block of spectrum and what engineering rules will be required to prevent interference between the various services. The agency’s action Thursday kicks off the process by requesting public comment.

Roughly a quarter of daily domestic flights have Wi-Fi service, according toRoutehappy.com, which tracks travel information. Another 12 percent of flights have trial service or offer service on a given route depending on the aircraft used. But it is not always easy to tell when booking a flight whether it will have Wi-Fi service, said John Walton, director of data for Routehappy.

In-flight service is now usually limited to about 3 megabits per second, per plane — barely half the speed of the average household DSL connection and one-third the average wired broadband speed. The new system will be faster in part because it will operate on a different band of spectrum, and in part because of the way it transmits signals.

Currently, there are two types of in-flight broadband service: satellite-based and air-to-ground. Satellite systems use antennas mounted on the top of planes to communicate with satellites. Air-to-ground systems send signals between a ground-based network and an antenna on the bottom of a plane.

The new system would share the 14.0-14.5 gigahertz band of the electromagnetic spectrum, a 500-megahertz band that is far wider than the current 4-megahertz band used in air-to-ground systems. All of that means that the new system would be capable of transmitting data at up to 300 gigabits per second in combined service to all aircraft aloft.

“Air-to-ground connectivity is inherently less expensive than satellite systems,” said Mary Kirby, editor in chief of Airline Passenger Experience magazine. “The industry knows that they need to meet consumer demand for increased connectivity. It’s quite literally become the cost of doing business.”

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. The Satellite Industry Association said it had filed with the commission “detailed technical analyses that demonstrate that the proposed air-ground service would cause interference into the satellite services.”

Those services have first rights to the airwaves in question, which are used by media, public safety and American military customers for essential communications, the association said. Companies like Boeing, which makes satellites as well as planes, also oppose the proposal.

Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner who supported getting the proposal under way, said it was clear which way the requirements for connectivity were moving.

“In our hyperconnected age, we need and expect access to connectivity and content anytime and anywhere,” Ms. Rosenworcel said. “The world simply does not wait for us to get off the plane.”

<nyt_correction_bottom>

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 10, 2013

 An earlier version of this article characterized incorrectly the possible speeds of in-flight broadband Internet service under a proposal being considered by the F.C.C. The proposal envisions a combined service speed of up to 300 gigabits per second, to be shared among all the aircraft using the system at a given moment; individuals would not be able to access a 300-gigabit connection. The error was repeated in a picture caption. The earlier version also miscalculated a comparison of 300 gigabits per second to the average home broadband connection speed. The average home broadband connection is roughly 10 megabits per second in the United States. A 300-gigabit connection would be 30,000 times the average home speed, not 30 times.

 

 

 

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