FCC paves the way for better in-flight broadband

The FCC approved new rules on Friday that will make it easier for companies to offer broadband Internet on airplanes. The FCC has authorized in-flight Internet on an ad hoc basis since 2001, but the new rules will provide a framework for licensing companies to provide it.

Matthias Schrader/AP/File
The FCC announced new rules on Friday that will make it easier for companies to provide in-flight broadband Internet. Here, a Lufthansa airplane comes in for an early-morning landing at Munich Airport.

Lots of airlines offer Wi-Fi on their flights, but if you've ever tried to use it, you know the service can be ... less than ideal. Scarce bandwidth, frequent outages, and high-connection charges on lots of planes can make the prospect of connecting to in-flight networks a dicey proposition.

For some people, that's a plus: after all, a flight is one of the rare times when you can enjoy a novel or take a nap, untethered from the demands that come from being online. But if distracting yourself from a long flight with Facebook and YouTube sounds like more your cup of tea, you can thank the FCC: the Commission established rules on Friday that will make it easier for companies to offer Internet service on airplanes.

The new rules will streamline the process by which companies apply for permission to offer in-flight Internet, says FCC chairman Julius Genachowski. The approval process will be standardized, allowing the FCC to process license applications about 50 percent faster, and administrative burdens on companies seeking license will be reduced.

"This will enable providers to bring broadband to planes more efficiently, helping passengers connect with friends, family, or the office," Genachowski says in a statment.

The FCC has already authorized a number of companies to provide in-flight Internet service, but the process has been "ad hoc" up until now. In-flight broadband relies on a technology called Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft (ESAA), which carries two-way broadband signals between geo-stationary satellites and an antenna mounted on the aircraft. The new rules establish a framework for any company to use ESAA, provided that their systems don't interfere with aircraft communications and that they meet with approval from the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration, which operates the country's air traffic control system.

Interestingly, the FCC's new rules don't mean that passengers will be able to use electronics throughout flights. The longstanding ban on using cell phones in-flight still stands, as does a ban on using laptops and other electronics during takeoff and landing. The government says those rules are in place because of concerns about interference with ground communications. But Genachowski also asked the FAA earlier this month to relax the rules on aircraft -- so perhaps you'll soon be able to stay connected from takeoff 'til landing.

The FCC notes that the new rules are being put in place with an eye toward "enhancing competition in an important sector of the mobile telecommunications market", as well as "promoting the widespread availability of Internet access to aircraft passengers." That means you'll likely have to rely on willpower soon, if you're interested in maintaining your flights as an oasis of "unplugged" time.

Are you excited about the idea of more connected flights? Or are you happy to pass the time in the air with a book? Let us know in the comments section below.

For more tech news, follow Jeff on Twitter@jeffwardbailey.

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