FCC to streamline inflight broadband regulations

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is seeking to bolster competition in the inflight broadband market by enacting a rule that streamlines the licensing process for inflight internet providers, says a new notice of proposed rulemaking.

The FCC says that the new rules will allow connectivity providers applying for licenses to see fewer administrative burdens and will "enhance competition" in the connectivity space. It says passengers and crew onboard aircraft are an "underserved sector" for broadband.

"Whether travelling for work or leisure, Americans increasingly expect broadband access everywhere they go," says the commission's chairman Julius Genachowski in a statement. "These new rules will help airlines and broadband providers offer high-speed Internet to passengers, including by accelerating by up to 50 percent the processing of applications to provide broadband on planes."

The rules specifically apply to licenses to operate earth stations on an aircraft's exterior. These stations communicate with satellites to create a link between airborne and terrestrial systems, the report and order from the commission states. These stations operate between the 10.95-11.2 GHz, 11.45-11.7 GHz, 11.7-12.2 GHz downlink and 14.0-14.5 GHz uplink bands.

Until this point, connectivity providers such as Gogo, Row 44, Panasonic and ViaSat have been able to connect to geostationary orbit (GSO), fixed satellite service (FSS) space stations to facilitate a link for inflight broadband. However, these applications have been satisfied on an ad-hoc basis.

The new rule will make earth stations aboard aircraft (ESAA) a licensed application equal to those used on vessels and vehicles. Licensing through the FCC is a step in the process to gain US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for the systems.

"The FCC's effort to establish standards will help to streamline the process for airlines to install Internet systems on aircraft," says the FAA in a statement. "Rather than have to test on-board systems on an ad hoc basis, airlines will now be able test systems that meet FCC standards, establish that they don't interfere with aircraft systems and receive FAA approval."

California-based ViaSat, the satellite provider for JetBlue's Ka-band offering set to launch this year, says that it has been heavily involved in the rulemaking process for ESAA and sees the streamlined rules as a positive development.

"We welcome efforts by the FCC to streamline regulation in ways that preserve their effectiveness while increasing efficiency and we think with our superior Ka product, any lowering of barriers to competition is great news for the public and for ViaSat," says the company.

The agency's report shows that several connectivity providers have already filed applications for inflight broadband through the agency on an ad hoc basis.

The notice says that Gogo filed an application on 19 June for a license of up to 1,000 Ku-band earth stations in addition to its terrestrial air-to-ground technology. Delta Air Lines is the company's launch customer for its Ku service and it plans to outfit more than 1,000 aircraft with the technology by 2015.

Panasonic Avionics has received authorisation for a network of up to 50 earth stations for Lufthansa aircraft. It announced in November 2010 that it would offer its Global Communications Suite on Lufthansa's transatlantic flights.

Row 44 also has authorisation for up to 1,000 earth stations, which supports more than 400 Southwest Airlines aircraft.

ViaSat also received a blanket authorisation for up to 1,000 earth stations and Boeing for up to 800. Arinc has also received a license for up to 1,000 earth stations.