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FCC Sides With Airlines in Fight Over Wi-Fi Spectrum

Commission rules that it, not airports, has jurisdiction over wireless airwaves

By Bob Brewin
June 28, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The Federal Communications Commission last week handed airlines a victory in their battle with airport authorities over control of Wi-Fi spectrum at airports, ruling that it has exclusive jurisdiction over the use of unlicensed spectrum "regardless of venue."
The FCC acted in response to a petition filed in March by the Industrial Telecommunications Association, a trade group that represents airlines, package-delivery couriers and companies in other industries on spectrum issues. In the petition, the ITA asked the FCC to stop airports from banning wireless network installations by individual tenants.
Airport authorities had claimed the right to manage the spectrum within their boundaries and require that tenants use airportwide Wi-Fi networks instead of deploying their own. Just last week, Logan International Airport in Boston turned on a network that covers its entire facility and said all tenants would have to pay usage fees to run their wireless applications.
'Anticompetitive' Moves
The ITA cited Logan's Universal Wireless Ethernet System, a similar network at Denver International Airport and others planned for the Los Angeles and the Raleigh-Durham airports in its petition to the FCC, labeling the moves by the airports to restrict individual Wi-Fi networks as "anticompetitive activities."
The FCC issued its ruling late Thursday. In a statement the next day, Laura Smith, the ITA's president and CEO, said the ruling was "a big score for our airline members."
"The FCC has made the right decision," United Air Lines Inc. said in its own statement. "United can now install Wi-Fi systems in our tenant space, bag rooms, bag claim areas and on the ramp without months of negotiations and unnecessary costs."
Officials at Denver International and the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, didn't return calls seeking comment by deadline.
Prior to the ruling, Massport spokeswoman Barbara Platt said the use of a single network at the airport provides for better management of the wireless spectrum there and "ensures Wi-Fi runs smoothly for all users."
Like Massport, Denver International maintained that it needed to manage the Wi-Fi spectrum in the unlicensed 2.4- and 5-GHz bands to ensure frequency and spectrum coordination on its property. "If we don't coordinate, it's going to be a zoo out there," said Jim Winston, the airport's director of telecommunications. "There would be mass confusion."
But Mike Mader, a ground systems radio engineer who handles Wi-Fi installations for United, said the cost of using airportwide networks is an "unnecessary expense" for the airline. United has installed Wi-Fi networks to support bag-scanning at numerous airports, including its Chicago hub. Mader said that approach is more cost-effective than paying usage feesto airports.
He added that United experienced technical problems with a network from AT&T Wireless Services Inc. at Denver International. The network access points didn't provide adequate coverage for United's bag-scanning system, Mader said, noting that the wireless signals didn't reach far enough to support scanning of late bags being loaded into planes.
In addition, United's signals faced interference from another 2.4-GHz network, which was eventually traced to an unapproved installation at the airport's central car-rental facility. The problems in Denver began last October and weren't resolved until this month, Mader said.

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