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US FCC to rethink in-flight mobile phone rules

New ground to air data links coming too

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The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did not issue a ruling this week that finally permit in-flight Wi-Fi - contrary to hundreds of reports on the Internet and elsewhere.

The FCC's ruling covers something altogether different, but that didn't stop a host of non-technical hacks claiming that the organisation's ruling did indeed pave the way for the installation of WLANs on board aircraft.

How could it? Boeing's Connexion service has been touting and installing Wi-Fi networks into airliners for over three years. Connexion comprises on-board access points connected to the Internet via a satellite link.

So what exactly did the FCC decide yesterday? Crucially, it plans of allow a 4MHz segment of the 800MHz band to be used for air-ground data traffic as well as voice, which is what that part of the spectrum is currently used for. The 4MHz segment will be put up for auction, the FCC said, by splitting into a number of overlapping bands, which will be offered to the highest group-bids for both - one company alone can't bid for both bands.

The winners will be able to use the segment for voice and data, but not "ancillary services", whatever they are. The FCC didn't say, but Glenn Fleishmann at Wi-Fi Networking News suggests the organisation has aircraft telemetry and navigation systems in mind. He also has a nice run-down of the stories that got the FCC's ruling arse-over-elbow.

What this means is that there will (eventually) be an alternative way of getting data to and from an aircraft to the satellite systems already employed by the likes of Connexion. Indeed, the Boeing subsidiary is likely to be very keen in bidding for that 4MHz segment since satellite connectivity is not cheap.

A second element of this week's ruling focuses on mobile phones, and notes that the FCC will now formally consider whether to allow the use of mobile phones during flights by the addition of micro base-stations into aircraft cabins. Again, that requires an air-ground link, either by satellite or by the 4MHz segment of the 800MHz band. ®

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