The In-Flight Wireless Wrangle

Carriers and service providers are laying the groundwork for mobile access on planes. But they've got a lot of hurdles to overcome

Brace yourselves, passengers. Air travel could soon be getting a lot bumpier -- or at least noisier. AirCell, a maker of in-flight communications systems, and JetBlue Airways (JBLU) won an auction for a very hot commodity: a slice of radio airwaves devoted to air-to-ground communications.

The companies intend to use the frequencies to provide wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, Internet access on board planes. Neither would comment for this story, saying the deal has yet to be clinched. The airwave bidding comes just when the Federal Communications Commission is investigating whether cell phones interfere with an airplane's navigation system.

What does it mean for travelers? A move to give passengers access to the Net, combined with an FCC finding that cell phones are safe, could be all that's needed to open the in-flight mobile-phone floodgates. Parties on all sides, from consumers to flight attendants to lawmakers, are getting worked up about the possibilities.


  For some, the prospect of in-flight wireless may evoke the unsettling image of cross-country travel next to a gossipy teenager with a different ringtone for each caller. For others, it carries the mixed blessing of extra Web-connected work time. Flight attendants see it as a distraction that could heighten work stress.

But opponents needn't despair just yet. There are still plenty of hurdles to be overcome before passengers can keep cell phones turned on or launch Web browsers on board. Here are five of the biggest:

1. The FCC. Contrary to some reports, the actual licenses for the spectrum haven't been awarded; Jet Blue and AirCell just won the auction. They now have to put down cash and file long-form applications. The FCC could take months to review the applications. Rejection is possible, though not probable. As for the cell-phone safety question, that's a separate, fuzzier issue. The FCC opened it up for comment in December, 2004, and no timeline has been set on when they may revisit it.

2. The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA). The RTCA is an independent organization that the Federal Aviation Administration consults for technical advice. Since June, 2003, the RTCA has been looking at the use of portable electronic devices on planes, and whether they truly do muck with an airplane's navigation system as the flight attendants now tell you when you're ordered to turn off your phone. Its report is due at the end of the year, and while it won't be a slam dunk for reversing the FAA's stance on communications devices, the recommendations will be taken seriously. "When anyone applies to use any system, be it cell phones or a wireless Internet system on board airplanes, we'll use RTCA data, reports, and recommendations as a baseline for whether it's reasonable," says FAA spokesperson Les Dorr.

3. The FAA. Beyond the RTCA report, anyone wanting to offer such services on flights has to get several permits from the FAA. One is to certify any piece of equipment that would be added to a plane. Then, each airline has to get a separate permit to attach said equipment to each type of plane. Even if the FAA relaxes rules, this red tape could bog down the process.

4. Verizon. Let's say AirCell and Jet Blue get the final licenses from the FCC. And clear all the hurdles with the FAA. Then they've got to deal with Verizon (VZ), the current owner of the spectrum they bid on, and its license doesn't expire until May, 2010. Verizon will still have some claims to these airwaves until then, so if AirCell and Jet Blue are in a hurry, they'll have to reach some kind of agreement with Verizon on the side.

5. Passengers and flight attendants. Even if all these technical and regulatory hurdles get cleared, airlines will have to decide what kind of backlash from passengers and employees could occur if phones are allowed on flights. Expect lawmakers and flight attendants to fight hard for peace and quiet.

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