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FCC Considers Cell Phone Use On Airplanes

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page E01

Air travelers moved one step closer to being able to talk on cell phones and surf the Internet from laptops while in flight, thanks to votes by the Federal Communications Commission yesterday.

Cell phone use is banned on airplanes by two federal agencies for separate reasons. The Federal Aviation Administration fears the wireless signals could interfere with an airplane's avionics and communications equipment.

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The FCC bans in-flight use because cell phones can communicate with more than one cell tower when in the air. This could lead to disruption of service for cell phones on the ground, which use only one tower at a time.

But the commission thinks cell phone technology has advanced far enough in recent years to minimize such disruption of ground service. Yesterday, the FCC voted to consider lifting its ban, and it will begin taking comments from businesses and travelers over the next few months.

The FAA, meanwhile, has commissioned a study that could eventually result in its cell phone ban being lifted. In the meantime, according to an agency spokesman, the FAA would consider lifting the ban for a specific airline or manufacturer if it could prove that cell phone or Internet use on its aircraft is not dangerous. The FAA has already approved Boeing Co.'s Connexion, a high-speed Internet service available on some overseas routes flown by Lufthansa, All Nippon Airways and others.

Some of the five FCC commissioners expressed anxiety yesterday over what a planeload of chatty fliers would sound like.

"We here at the commission need to determine precisely what jurisdiction the FCC has over the annoying seatmate issue," Commissioner Michael J. Copps said.

"We'll let others work out the details of etiquette," Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein said.

In a related action, the commission proposed rules for auctioning off spectrum that would give air travelers access to high-speed Internet in addition to cell phone service, though that measure caused some internal dissent.

Currently, the only FCC-approved contact that U.S. fliers can have with the ground is via Verizon's Airfone service, the sole remaining licensee of six licenses granted by the commission years ago for such service. "The current air-to-ground narrowband service surely has not fulfilled expectations," Copps said in a statement. "There are few calls made each day, and the service is high-priced and limited to voice."

For these reasons, the FCC seeks to overhaul the system and sell the four megahertz of spectrum that are used to provide it.

But the plan for chopping up and selling off the spectrum to a number of businesses is controversial.

The new rules say no company can own more than three megahertz of the spectrum. But even that, commissioners Copps and Adelstein warned, would be enough to allow one company to have a monopoly over high-speed service to aircraft.

Copps said that if one company bought three megahertz, "true broadband air-to-ground" service could not be supported by any other company on the remaining single megahertz of spectrum. "That means that if a company bids enough, it can exclude all other competitors, leaving airlines with only one possible supplier and passengers with no choice," he said.

However, commission Chairman Michael K. Powell and FCC engineers said they have crafted a plan that allows for overlapping use of the spectrum and does not just enable competition among competitive high-speed Internet providers, but opens up the spectrum to businesses that "only want small slices" of it, Powell said.

"We have to not pick winners and losers in business plans," he said.

Space Data Corp., a small Arizona company that transmits data via high-altitude balloons and favored the spectrum-allocation plan passed by the FCC yesterday, said one megahertz is currently not enough bandwidth to provide high-speed Internet, but it will be within months.

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