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More Wi-Fi in the sky: FCC to help keep US flyers tweeting

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The US spectrum regulator wants to release 500MHz of radio spectrum for aircraft backhaul, creating cheaper connectivity for passengers taking their entertainment into their own hands.

Seventy per cent of American flyers take electronic devices with them, making the screen-back displays increasingly redundant, but mid-air connectivity is expensive. So the FCC has proposed auctioning 500MHz of bandwidth, starting at 14GHz, to backhaul airline data and make in-flight browsing a great deal cheaper.

The band will likely be auctioned off, perhaps in two chunks of 250MHz to encourage the creation of competing networks. Those networks will have to tread carefully to avoid the fixed-satellite services already operating in the band, but the FCC reckons the services can co-exist and the need for in-flight connectivity outweighs the risk.

Various airlines already offer in-flight Wi-Fi, but international flights have to backhaul all the data over satellite, which is expensive and slow. Across the USA, Gogo offers a cellular network for aircraft, using 160 base stations pointed upwards, but Gogo only has 3MHz of bandwidth into which it squeezes a 3G (EV-DO) signal shared between aircraft within the cell.

Europe's 3G standard, for comparison, uses 5MHz slots, but neighbouring cells would normally use different frequencies which isn't an option for Gogo. As a result, connection speeds vary widely depending on the number of flights/passengers using the service.

500MHz of bandwidth, even in the relatively unexplored 14MHz band, would open up huge opportunities to backhaul voice and data from aircraft, as long as they remained within US airspace.

Consumer devices on planes don't, in general, interfere with aircraft instruments. The story runs that one specific portable CD player did, once, muck up an instrument, and that event resulted in the outright ban we're still living with during take off and landing at least.

But the Consumer Association tells us that one in five passengers admit to accidentally leaving a phone switched on for the duration of a flight, and the network operators know that at any given moment there are hundreds of phones are in the air desperately ramping up the power in the hope of reaching a terrestrial base station, as their signals frequently confuse the macro network.

Hitherto that hasn't mattered, there was no incentive to investigate or remove the ban, just as life jackets on aircraft don't save lives but are hauled all over the world because no one has any incentive to get rid of them, so passengers have tolerated the ban as it never bothered them.

But these days it's not just high-level executives and politicians who need to instantly respond to changing circumstances. A four-hour flight could leave one's Twitter feed abandoned, and how can one Instagram the in-flight meal without an internet connection - so the sooner the FCC can get the bandwidth released, the better. ®

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