Seeking to speed the delivery of new communications services to U.S. airline passengers, the government yesterday paved the way for at least one company to compete with Connexion...

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Seeking to speed the delivery of new communications services to U.S. airline passengers, the government yesterday paved the way for at least one company to compete with Connexion by Boeing to provide high-speed Internet access to domestic flights.

The Federal Communications Commission also voted to solicit public comment about ending the ban on in-flight use of cellphones.

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The FCC in 2001 authorized Connexion to use satellite links to provide broadband Internet services to domestic flights. No U.S. airlines offer Connexion yet, however, as they have balked at the estimated $500,000 per plane in new equipment necessary to provide it.

Lufthansa of Germany and a few other foreign carriers began offering Connexion on international flights this year.

The FCC sought to broaden the domestic playing field yesterday by loosening restrictions on the wireless frequencies now reserved for transmitting phone calls between airplanes and the ground.

Verizon Airfone, based in Oak Brook, Ill., is the only company providing inflight phone service over those airwaves. The FCC yesterday granted Verizon a nonrenewable, five-year extension of its license to provide that service.

The FCC also said it will hold an auction within a year to determine which companies will be able to use that same chunk of wireless real estate to offer data services, though it did not specify how many companies will be eligible.

Verizon maintains that letting one company handle the bulk of the service would ensure the best quality.

Others, including AirCell, argue that at least two companies should have equal access in providing data 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.

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.

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.

“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 timeline for when air travelers might be able to start using cellphones in flight is murkier. Both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration ban the practice.

The FCC is concerned that cellphone use in an airplane might interfere with cellphone 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 cellphone 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 cellphone 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 cellphone use won’t be made until then.

Information from Seattle Times aerospace reporter David Bowermaster and The Associated Press is included in this report.