FCC moves to speed up in-flight Internet

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved forward with a proposal on Thursday that could boost the Internet speeds available for airplane passengers and potentially bring down prices.

The FCC voted unanimously to seek public input on a proposal to devote more frequencies for air-to-ground wireless broadband signals.  

The measure is backed by Qualcomm, which hopes to beam high-speed Internet into airplanes from ground stations across the country.

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In a statement, Qualcomm applauded the FCC's step, saying it will allow "passengers to use their smartphones, tablets and other mobile broadband devices in the air with very high speed, high capacity mobile broadband connectivity, just as they do on the ground."

GoGo is currently the main provider of in-flight Wi-Fi service, but the company only has access to a small slice of airwaves. A smaller band of frequencies usually means slower connections and more congestion.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the step could mean better productivity for business passengers and more enjoyable flights for everyone. He argued the measure would also boost competition, bringing down the steep prices to access in-flight Wi-Fi.

"More and more we expect and need to be online 24/7, at home, in the office or on a plane," Genachowski said.

But the proposal is already facing opposition from the satellite industry, which worries it could interfere with their services. The frequencies the FCC is proposing to devote to air-to-ground broadband is in a band currently used by satellite companies.

In recent filings with the FCC, the Satellite Industry Association, which represents DirecTV, Boeing, Echostar and others, warned that Qualcomm's system could disrupt their services and threaten their multibillion dollar industry.

Interference concerns from the satellite industry forced the FCC to scrap LightSquared's plan for a nationwide high-speed cellphone network last year. 

At Thursday's meeting, the FCC commissioners said they are eager to get input from all of the affected industries. 

The meeting was the last for Genachowski, who will step down as chairman in the coming days. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn will serve as interim chairman until the Senate confirms the president's pick, Tom Wheeler.