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Comment In a decision with significant ramifications for the travelling public, the FCC has ruled that the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) cannot block a Wi-Fi access point in the Continental Airlines lounge at Boston's Logan International Airport.

In its ruling, the FCC stated that the rules governing Over The Air Reception Devices (OTARD) stated that Continental Airlines was within its rights to provide free Wi-Fi services in its President's Club lounge located at Logan Airport.

The larger effect of the ruling was to reaffirm that consumers and businesses are free to install Wi-Fi antennas without seeking approval from landlords just as they can install antennas for video and other fixed wireless applications.

The issue arose last summer when Massport decided that for safety reasons, its competing $7.95/day Wi-Fi service would be the only one permitted at Logan Airport under the reasoning that competitive Wi-Fi services system posed a risk of interference with equipment used by state police and Transportation Security Administration officers. The FCC restated that unlicensed spectrum, such as the 2.4GHz on which Wi-Fi operates, has different standard interference protection than those used for public safety purposes. Massport officials have not ruled out further legal action.

With all the fees, legitimately applied, that the agency has, including landing fees, retail space rentals, gate fees, concession recovery fees, tourism fees, passenger facility fees, and many more buried within its operating agreements, why does Massport feel it is entitled to coerce the business traveller to fork over another $8 for the privilege of using the internet while waiting for a flight? With its captive market, Massport is trying to insert itself again into the pockets of the traveller. It is amazing that Massport has not tried to confiscate mobile phones or force users onto a specific cell network as well. Clearly, this is a case of simple greed and arrogance.

We think the FCC is right on this one: airlines should have the ability to offer Wi-Fi access to their customers, for fee or for free, without heavy-handed interference from the airport.

Continental has paid the rent for the lounge space, and is not engaged in illegal activity, so that should, and hopefully will now be, the end of it. The value of Wi-Fi to the business traveller is substantial: it is an innovation that pays dividends for users, their businesses, and the economy as a whole in regained productivity previously lost to the opportunity cost of air travel.

This reality is reflected in the numbers of access spots throughout the country, and the interest of some large cities to build out no-cost Wi-Fi networks that reach all incorporated limits. While some might believe that Massport misses the obvious value of ubiquitous Wi-Fi access, we reason that Massport very much understands the value of Wi-Fi service and its shameless attempt to corner the market is petty, very petty indeed.

Nevertheless, some enterprising folk, including at one least Sageza analyst, have long circumvented the powers that be through the simple use of a GPRS-enabled mobile phone.

GPRS, along with EDGE, EVO, and WiMax, are all competitive solutions to Wi-Fi, and unless Massport was planning to build the RF equivalent of the Berlin wall around Logan, these solutions would have easily encroached on Massport's shortsighted Wi-Fi policy anyway, thus reducing the value of its money-grabbing monopoly in the long term.

Despite the best efforts of some to constrain or profit unfairly from the freedom of communication, in this case we believe the FCC has ruled in the best interest of users and the marketplace overall.

Copyright © 2006, The Sageza Group

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