FCC eases restrictions on Internet use on flights

December 28, 2012

Federal officials inched closer to allowing the Internet aboard more flights, one of the last places generally off limits to the Web.

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday approved an application process for airlines to obtain broadband Internet licenses aboard their planes. Previously, airlines were granted permission on an ad hoc basis.

Airlines need the FCC’s permission to tap into satellite airwaves while in flight that enable passengers to access the Internet. They also need permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the safety of inflight Internet systems.

The regulatory hurdles have stalled the implementation of the Internet in the air, some experts say.

Still, some airlines have been reluctant to join the broadband bandwagon for a much more mundane reason: peace.

Not all passengers want to be sandwiched between seatmates who are streaming videos, playing games and, potentially in the future, talking on their cellphones.

“Whether traveling for work or leisure, Americans increasingly expect broadband access everywhere they go,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski , adding that the rules will speed the aircraft Internet application process by 50 percent.

The decision comes as consumers and technologists question restrictions on the use of electronic devices on planes.

An e-reader does not pose the same threat of interference that a cellphone could for a pilot’s ability to safely operate a plane, some experts say. But a Kindle is treated the same as other electronic devices, which must be turned off during takeoffs and landings.

Earlier this month, Genachowski wrote to FAA acting administrator Michael P. Huerta asking for greater use of devices during flights.

The FAA requires airlines to test Internet systems and devices to prove they will not interfere with radio communications and navigation tools. The FAA noted that the FCC’s rules will help “streamline the process” for airlines to install Internet systems on aircraft, but did not comment beyond that.

The FAA in August launched a working group to study the use of new devices such as e-readers, tablets and game consoles on flights. But the FAA said it would not consider the use of cellphone connections in its study.

United, American and Delta airlines have been offering Internet service on limited routes through providers such as Gogo.

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Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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