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6/7/2006
03:32 PM
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Winner Of In-Flight Broadband Spectrum Wants Cell Phones On Planes, Too

AirCell wants to connect people to their cell phones on flights. Many passengers dread the thought.

AirCell, one of the high bidders that won an in-flight broadband license late last week in a Federal Communications Commission auction, wants to do more with its spectrum than provide Internet access. The manufacturer of airborne telecommunication systems also hopes to convince carriers to allow cell phone use on airplanes.

A lot would have to happen before it would be allowed, including regulatory changes and deals with cellular providers. But if AirCell pulls it off, it would re-ignite one of the most heated debates in the air: Should travelers be allowed to use cell phones in the air, even if it's safe?

Nine companies bid in the FCC auction for the right to license the 800-MHz spectrum now owned by Verizon Airfone for the rarely used in-flight telephones. AirCell, which paid $31.3 million for one of the licenses, says it has a broadband system that can be ready by next year to let passengers on airplanes use their Wi-Fi devices, such as laptops and PDAs, for Internet access. AirCell also said this week it will reach out to wireless carriers with hopes of making it possible for cell-phone customers to use their phones and PDAs while in the air in the same way they now use those devices on the ground, in exchange for a roaming fee.

Cell phone aren't allowed on commercial planes today, so federal regulations would have to change to allow this. Even then, many airlines are hesitant about allowing phones on planes even if they're allowed by regulation, because so many passengers say they don't want the annoyance from fellow travelers' talking. Nearly 70% of them want to keep restrictions on cell phone use, a poll released last spring by the National Consumer League and a flight attendants' association found. Some have said they wouldn't allow voice-over-IP calling if Internet access is offered on board.

AirCell has yet to complete the official licensing process with the FCC and will be having discussions with a several airlines interested in providing broadband to their passengers. The AirCell network will initially cover the U.S. and will be expanded to the rest of North America, including Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

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