In-flight mobile connectivity appears headed to United States

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In-flight mobile connectivity providers are cautiously optimistic of breaking into the US market after lawmakers dropped language from proposed FAA Reauthorisation legislation that would have imposed a permanent federal ban on the technology.

At present, the use of mobile phones in flight is disallowed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the FAA. In an effort to ensure that a permanent federal ban remained in place, Representative Peter DeFazio and other lawmakers in 2008 introduced the "Hang-Up Act" to more formally prohibit wireless voice communications during flights, including voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), while ignoring wired voice communications.

Hang-Up Act language was later added to FAA Reauthorisation legislation, but now both chambers of Congress have opted not to include the language in their respective bills.

The Senate version of FAA Reauthorisation legislation has affirmed the current regulatory process - that the FAA and FCC can address in-flight connectivity when an airline application occurs by being silent about connectivity in its bill. Meanwhile, the House version of the FAA bill "has done a total reversal from the previous Congress where it advocated a ban", notes Carl Biersack, executive director of In-flight Passenger Communications Coalition (IPCC), a lobbying group established by industry rivals AeroMobile and OnAir, as well as Panasonic Avionics, Inmarsat and Rockwell Collins.

The House wants three things, notes Biersack - a study on international deployment; a public comment period where all stakeholders can input their thoughts and concerns; and finally a report to Congress. Each of these three steps have a specified date for performance/execution based on the date of final passage and enactment of the FAA bill.

"There should be a new FAA Reauthorisation bill from what I can see by the end of May and the House and Senate versions of that bill do not include any Hang-Up Act legislation whatsoever," says AeroMobile vice president, regulatory and programmes Kevin Rogers.

An OnAir spokeswoman says: "The final version of a FAA Reauthorisation bill when adopted, is expected to include provisions mandating the FAA to conduct a study on the impact of cell phones for voice communications aboard aircraft. Such provisions will mark a significant milestone towards formulating a regulatory framework to enable certification and licensing of cell phone use (including voice communications) aboard aircraft."

But could Hang-Up Act legislation be introduced in standalone form? Rogers believes that is "highly unlikely", noting that House transportation and infrastructure committee chairman John Mica is among the "strong supporters of what we're about".

Before mobile connectivity can be brought on board US aircraft, however, the FCC must open a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM). As such, a change in FCC regulation could take "18 months or longer", notes Rogers.

However, he adds: "I would say things are slightly better. No doubt work needs to be done with the telcos [telecommunications companies] to make sure there is no concern with regard to ground interference, which was their primary concern [when the FCC opened a NPRM on the matter in the middle of the last decade]."

Adds AeroMobile CEO Pal Bjordal: "This provides the telcos with incremental revenue."

Even though in-flight mobile connectivity has been offered in other parts of the world for years, the topic has proven a touchy one in the US. When DeFazio introduced his bill, he said the public "doesn't want to be subjected to people talking on their cell phones on an already over-packed airplane" and some studies have supported his claims. Detractors say DeFazio's proposal sought to "legislate manners".

Rogers notes that it could take "18 months or longer" to get a change in FCC regulation, once the agency opens a NPRM. "There is light at the end of the tunnel," he says.

Says OnAir: "Definitive steps should be taken by the FCC on its own initiative or in response to petitions from private parties including US airlines, effecting changes to the rule currently prohibiting communications with cellular phones on-board aircraft. More so as increased use of cellular service on international carriers continues to spark competition, underscored by the fact that passengers on planes offering in-flight connectivity prefer cellular services to Wi-Fi."

Biersack says: "If either the House or Senate version of in-flight connectivity is enacted into law then airline passengers in America will have won the right to have a communication connectivity choice. After action by the FAA and the FCC, airlines in American airspace will have won the right to offer a passenger option that has a growing marketplace demand as reflected in overseas deployment and a usage that compliments the flying experience."

ATI and Flightglobal understand that at least one US carrier is keen to offer AeroMobile in-flight mobile connectivity to passengers.