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High-speed Net access coming to planes

/ Source: The Associated Press

Passengers taking to the skies for U.S. flights could be checking e-mail and surfing the Web through high-speed Internet connections in a couple of years. And the day when travelers can chat away on cell phones while in flight might not be far behind.

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday approved technology giving airlines what could be a cheaper option to provide Internet connections. The commissioners also voted to solicit public comment about ending the ban on in-flight use of cell phones.

“Today we live in an increasingly mobile world and Americans are demanding greater access to wireless services and applications,” FCC chairman Michael Powell said. “We are pushing the frontiers in order to bring the information age to all corners of the world.”

The FCC already had approved a high-speed Internet service provided by Boeing Co. Called “Connexion” which uses satellites to get air passengers online. The service is offered by some international carriers, including some flights to and from the United States.

But airline industry officials say cash-strapped domestic carriers haven’t bought into the service largely because of the cost — an estimated $500,000 per jet to install the needed equipment.

Unclear who will offer service
The FCC on Wednesday voted to allow airlines to offer high-speed Internet connections through the frequencies used by seatback phones. It would cost roughly $100,000 to outfit a plane with the necessary equipment.

As he waited for a flight at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, Tim Thomas, 47 of Binghamton, N.Y., said he relished the thought of being able to work on reports and send e-mail from his seat on the plane.

“I would find that a very efficient use of that time,” Thomas said.

Doug Wills, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the major airlines’ trade group, said the FCC ruling cleared regulatory barriers, though airlines are still analyzing costs. The airlines “would love to see cheaper and more affordable competition among the technology companies,” he said.

Left undecided by the FCC was how many companies would be allowed, through an auction, to offer the service. Oak Brook, Ill.-based Verizon Airfone, which is the only company that offers seatback phone service, maintains that letting one company handle the bulk of the service would ensure the best quality.

Others, including AirCell, argue that two companies should have equal access in providing services to prevent one company from having a monopoly. FCC officials said the auction would take place within a year.

Once plans are completed and planes outfitted with the equipment, high-speed Internet access could be offered on domestic flights by 2006, said Jack Blumenstein, chairman and chief executive officer of Louisville, Colo.-based AirCell.

Bill Pallone, president of Verizon Airfone, said high-speed access through his company might cost roughly $10 for a three-hour flight.

Connexion by Boeing spokeswoman Sherry Nebel said her company remains in discussions with domestic carriers about carrying the satellite service. Connexion charges $29.95 for unlimited Internet access on flights over six hours, $19.95 for flights between three and six hours, and $14.95 for flights under three hours.

Decision on cell phones in 2006?
The timeline for when air travelers might be able to start using cell phones in flight is murkier. Both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration ban the practice.

Currently, the only way passengers on domestic flights can communicate with the ground is through phones usually built into seatbacks. That service isn’t very popular: It costs far more than conventional or cell phones — about $3.99 a minute — and the reception often is poor.

The FCC is concerned that cell phone use in an airplane might interfere with cell phone use on the ground. It will start taking public comment on the issue in early 2005, and a decision could be made within a year.

“The ability to communicate is a vital one, but good cell phone etiquette is also essential,” FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said. “Our job is to see if this is possible and then let consumers work out the etiquette.”

The FAA’s concern stems from whether airborne cell phone calls could interfere with a plane’s navigation and electrical systems, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said. The technology used on seatback phones causes no such interference.

The FAA has commissioned a private, independent firm to study the issue. Results aren’t due until 2006. Brown said any decision on cell phone use won’t be made until then.