WASHINGTON — It may soon be easier and faster to surf the Web at 30,000 feet
The Federal Communications Commission is proposing to auction off the rights to use newly available airwaves to provide better in-flight Wi-Fi connections, as the government agency seeks to improve the speed and lower the cost of Internet service on commercial flights.
The commission’s proposal Thursday is the first step toward a goal that it is likely to take a couple of years, at least, to reach: providing in-flight Internet service that can match or exceed the capabilities that most Americans have at home or can find in coffee shops.
The new format would use a more reliable system of contact between a plane and the ground, agency officials said, and should allow providers to offer more consistent service that is some 30 times faster than the service that many Americans have in their homes.
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Although it will be at least a couple of years before the new service is available, federal officials and people in the broadband business expressed excitement that the new format could free airline passengers from being captive to the expensive and rather slow Wi-Fi that is currently available on only some domestic flights.
“The reality is that we expect and often need to be able to get online 24/7, at home, in an office or on a plane,” Julius Genachowski, the FCC chairman, said at a meeting where the commission voted 4 to 0 to begin the necessary steps. “This will enable business and leisure travelers aboard aircraft in the United States to be more productive and have more choices in entertainment, communications and social media, and it could lower prices.”
The agency’s plan calls for the sale of one or more licenses to allow an Internet service provider to share certain airwaves with satellite communications companies. Those airwaves would then be used for an air-to-ground system of connections that employs cellphone towers.
Before the auction, the agency will have to decide how many licenses to grant in the 500-megahertz block of spectrum and what engineering rules will be required to prevent interference between the various services. The agency’s action Thursday kicks off the process by requesting public comment.
Roughly a quarter of daily domestic flights have Wi-Fi service, according to Routehappy.com, which tracks travel information. Another 12 percent of flights have trial service or offer service on a given route depending on the aircraft used. But it is not always easy to tell when booking a flight whether it will have Wi-Fi service, said John Walton, director of data for Routehappy.
In-flight service is now usually limited to about 3 megabits per second, per plane — barely half the speed of the average household DSL connection and one-third the average wired broadband speed. The new system will be faster in part because it will operate on a different band of spectrum, and in part because of the way it transmits signals.
Currently, there are two types of in-flight broadband service: satellite-based and air-to-ground. Satellite systems use antennas mounted on the top of planes to communicate with satellites. Air-to-ground systems send signals between a ground-based network and an antenna on the bottom of a plane.
The new system would share the 14.0-14.5 gigahertz band of the electromagnetic spectrum, a 500-megahertz band that is far wider than the current 4-megahertz band used in air-to-ground systems. All of that means that the new system would be capable of transmitting data at up to 300 gigabits per second — or 30 times the average home broadband speed.
“Air-to-ground connectivity is inherently less expensive than satellite systems,” said Mary Kirby, editor-in-chief of Airline Passenger Experience magazine. “The industry knows that they need to meet consumer demand for increased connectivity. It’s quite literally become the cost of doing business.”
Not everyone is so enthusiastic. The Satellite Industry Association said it had filed with the commission “detailed technical analyses that demonstrate that the proposed air-ground service would cause interference into the satellite services.”
Those services have first rights to the airwaves in question, which are used by media, public safety and American military customers for essential communications, the association said. Companies like Boeing, which makes satellites as well as planes, also oppose the proposal.
Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner who supported getting the proposal under way, said it was clear which way the requirements for connectivity were moving.
“In our hyperconnected age, we need and expect access to connectivity and content anytime and anywhere,” Rosenworcel said. “The world simply does not wait for us to get off the plane.”