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Monday, March 13, 2006

Air-To-Ground Radio Frequency Auction Set For May

In what could reflect a far-reaching shift in users' communications habits aboard U.S. commercial aircraft, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has outlined details of a long-awaited auction that will sell 800 MHz spectrum for new air-to-ground (ATG) radio frequency (RF) services.

Planning for what will be known as Auction 65 stems from a late 2004 FCC decision that earmarked 4 megahertz in the 800 MHz band for the ATG services from airliners. It also laid the groundwork for licensing via auction of additional, individual channels in the 400 MHz general aviation band for similar offerings.

The licenses now scheduled to be available through competitive bidding - starting on May 10 - ostensibly will permit airline passengers to choose a mix of voice, e-mail, file- transfer, Internet access, Web browsing and other trendy applications from several service providers with systems embedded on airplanes.

A recent study released by Carnegie Mellon University found that the use of cell phones, laptops or DVD players in flight may cause unsafe conditions in the air.

A good portion of the discussion on new ATG services as well as the auction rules and conditions dwells on the future status of Verizon Airfone, the sole incumbent ATG licensee in the 800 MHz band. The company, however, has several options to stay in the game, including a previously disclosed intention to bid on some of the auctioned spectrum.

The auction is expected to be welcomed by the airline and wireless industries, and many in the end-user community. They seek a long-term change in the operating environment for wireless applications - essentially embracing a mobile communications-centric culture that can generate new revenue and also can end the all-too-familiar bantering and bickering between flight attendants and passengers over repeated, unauthorized in-flight wireless-device activity.

Future scenarios also raise the possibility that commercial fliers someday may be permitted to use their own personal wireless devices for broadband applications.

Pending talks with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and a legislative authorization from Congress, the FCC also is considering whether passengers should be allowed to use their cellular handsets and other wireless devices aboard commercial airplanes. By the end of this year, the FAA expects to complete a study into whether such wireless devices and activities pose threats to flight-control systems.

Organized resistance to the new ATG offerings as well as to any personal-device use aboard airlines might be doubtful. Nevertheless, many passengers certainly won't take kindly to fellow fliers' growing mobile-usage habits, much the way voice conversations and keyboard clicking are now often regarded unfavorably or as intrusive in vehicles, on land transportation and in numerous other public places.

The FCC says that because the three radio frequency band configurations are mutually incompatible, applications for licenses in different band plans will be mutually exclusive. As such, a new licensee could provide any type of ATG service (voice, broadband Internet, data, etc.) to aircraft of any type, and it could serve any or all aviation markets (commercial, government and general).

Because there have been licensees that have tried to reconfigure their spectrum for other uses after the fact, the FCC stresses these ATG licenses are designated for aircraft deployment only. They are not applicable to any ancillary land mobile or fixed services in the 800 MHz ATG spectrum, and no single party can hold more than one license in any of the available band configurations.

The new ATG broadband environment essentially will end the onboard exclusivity of Verizon Airfone's high-priced in-flight service - an inheritance from GTE following that company's merger several years ago with the former Bell Atlantic and Nynex regional holding companies.

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