FCC Nixes Airline Cellular, Approves WiFi

    April 4, 2007

Airline travelers will soon have the opportunity to surf the Internet mid-flight by way of wireless networks, as many aircraft are now beginning to be outfitted with WiFi equipment. Even though the FCC has put it stamp of approval for in-flight WiFi, it still has reservations about the viability of offering cellular service to airline passengers.

FCC Nixes Airline Cellular, Approves WiFi
FCC Nixes Airline Cellular, Approves WiFi
FCC Nixes Airline Cellular, Approves WiFi

According to the FCC ruling, cell phone providers failed to "provide insufficient technical information on whether the use of cellular phones onboard aircraft may cause harmful interference to terrestrial networks."

In a piece by Grant Gross, however, the real motivator behind the FCC’s decision is brought to light:

After the FCC opened the inquiry in December 2004, the agency received thousands of comments from airline customers asking it not to approve mobile phone calls during flights. Many people said they didn’t want to be subjected to their neighbors’ phone conversations.

So while the FCC is standing by its technical defense for continuing the ban on in-flight cellular conversations, evidence indicates that the decision is based more on the issue of passenger convenience rather than technological viability.

This is especially apparent given the fact that the airlines are allowing WiFi technology aboard flights, and already have deals in place to implement cellular service:

The FCC has already auctioned off radio spectrum for cellphone use on airplanes, and telecommunications companies partnering with airlines have successfully tested several systems. But no company made a firm proposal. Facing high costs and opposition from fliers, U.S. airline customers weren’t interested. Yet with airlines in Europe and the Middle East to begin offering cellphone service aboard airplanes later this year, that could change.

VoIP access, however, will be disabled for in-flight WiFi, lending further credence to the theory that the FCC is siding with airline passengers who don’t want to be bothered with nearby phone conversations.

If in-flight cellular is successful in Europe and other countries abroad, however, look for the FCC to reevaluate its stance on the issue.