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FCC moves toward new airplane broadband service

The agency proposes a new air-to-ground service using fixed satellite spectrum

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has taken a major step toward helping more airlines offer in-cabin wireless broadband, with the agency voting Thursday to explore using new spectrum for air-to-ground broadband service.

The FCC voted to open a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, seeking comments on a proposal to assign 500MHz of 14GHz spectrum for new air-to-ground broadband service. In-flight broadband would share that spectrum with current occupants, including fixed satellite services and some U.S. government agencies.

The FCC will look at potential interference concerns in the NPRM.

In-flight broadband service is available now on about 3,000 airplanes worldwide, but there are some customer complaints about slow speeds and cost.

The new spectrum would allow faster service in airplanes and would allow more airplanes to offer wireless broadband, commissioners said. The new service could also provide competition and drive down costs of existing in-flight service, they said.

Consumer demand for in-flight broadband is growing, and an estimated 15,000 aircraft will offer broadband service by 2021, said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. "Today's airline passengers expect the same level of broadband service that is available on the ground," she said.

Currently, aircraft can offer broadband through two other bands of spectrum, but one band has only 4MHz available and the other is crowded with other services, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. A new service based on the 14GHz spectrum could provide data rates of up to 300Gbps, commissioners said.

Qualcomm, which petitioned the FCC for a new air-to-ground broadband service, applauded the commission's vote. "This proposal takes the technology to the next level, allowing passengers to use their smartphones, tablets and other mobile broadband devices in the air with very high speed, high capacity mobile broadband connectivity, just as they do on the ground," Dean Brenner, the company's senior vice president for government affairs, said in a statement.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.


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