An Internet-on-Airplanes Upgrade

FCC gives co-primary status to “Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft” uplinks.

The FCC has given in-flight Internet an upgrade.

Late in 2012, the FCC authorized use of earth stations installed on aircraft to communicate with Fixed-Satellite Service (FSS) spacecraft in geostationary orbits. Called “Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft” (ESAA), the service delivers wholesale Internet service to the airplane, where it gets parceled out to individual passengers via Wi-Fi.

Uplinks from the aircraft use the 14.0-14.5 GHz band, shared with (among others) the small VSAT terminals we often see on the roofs of gas stations and chain hotels. The FCC tentatively assigned ESAA secondary status, meaning that ESAA would have to (a) protect the VSATs and other primary users from interference, and (b) accept any interference from them. But the FCC stopped short of etching that decision in stone: a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking attached to the order asked whether the FCC should elevate ESAA to co-primary status.

The FCC has now made its decision: ESAA is co-primary. Other co-primary users and ESAA must all protect one other on equal terms.

The new order also makes a few adjustments in response to a petition for reconsideration. The rules will apply not only to aircraft operating within the United States, but also to U.S.-flagged aircraft anywhere in the world. The FCC clarified a technical provision requiring automatic shut-off if certain things go wrong, and one about the reliability of the mechanism that points the antenna at the satellite. The new rules wlll take effect 30 days after they get published in the Federal Register; check back here for updates.

Sure, these details are dull. But they make it possible to lean back at 35,000 feet and watch silly cat videos.

Remaining Internet-on-Airplane Rules Now in Effect

More good news for commercial air travelers!

Hot on the heels of the FAA’s decision to allow on-board use of many (but not all) electronic devices from taxiing through take-off and on to landing, the final step in a different gadgets-on-airplanes proceeding, this one at the FCC, has now become effective.

Late last year the FCC decided to facilitate Internet access on airplanes with the establishment of a new “Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft” (ESAA) service. While the lion’s share of the new ESAA rules kicked in last April, a couple still needed to be run through the Paperwork Reduction Act drill at the Office of Management and Budget. According to a notice in the Federal Register, OMB has signed off on those final loose ends (specifically, revised Sections 25.132(b)(3) and 25.227(b), (c), and (d)). Accordingly, they are now in effect.

Yet another FCC proceeding on data service to airplanes, this one using terrestrial towers, is still pending.

Both FCC matters are separate and distinct from the FAA’s recent action, but all of these signal an increasing governmental openness to the use of electronic devices on commercial flights. 

Happy skies!

Internet-on-Airplanes: Comments Due on Reconsideration Request

Open issues concern licensing, earth station technical requirements.

People who like to watch silly cat videos on airplanes no doubt were pleased with the FCC’s decision last December that regularized satellite service to and from aircraft in flight. No doubt even more pleased are the satellite providers, which now have access to a promising market: bored people strapped into their seats without much else to do.

Aircraft manufacturers, too, are enthusiastic about the prospect of the new service – at least, the folks at Boeing are. So much so that they have filed a petition for reconsideration and clarification “applaud[ing]” the Commission for its Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft initiative, but asking for several tweaks to the rules on licensing requirements and earth station technical specifics. Thanks to a notice in the Federal Register, we can tell you that comments on the requested changes are due on June 24, 2013 and reply comments on July 2.

Update: New Comment Deadlines Announced in Internet-on-Airplanes Proceeding

Remember the Commission’s proposal to accord its new Earth Station Aboard Aircraft (ESAA) service co-primary allocation status for its 14.0-14.5 GHz uplink operations? (Hint: ESAA is the service that’s expected to give us all easy Internet access on airplanes.) If you’re planning on filing comments on that proposal, you’re in luck! It turns out that the FCC miscalculated the comment deadlines when it first published the deadlines in the Federal Register a couple of weeks ago. So you can disregard the previously announced dates (which we reported on here. According to a corrective notice in the Federal Register, comments are due by May 22, 2013 and reply comments are due by June 21.

[Blogmeister's Note:  These comment dates affect only the details of spectrum sharing between ESAA and other satellite services. If you have views on the wisdom (or its absence) of Internet use on airplanes, the FCC no longer wants to hear about it. You can, however, write to your congressional representative or your senator.]

Internet-on-Airplanes Effective Date Set

The Internet-on-Airplanes service, having taxied down the runway, has now been largely – but not entirely – cleared for take-off.

Last December we reported on an FCC decision establishing a new “Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft” (ESAA) service that will allow earth stations installed on aircraft to communicate with Fixed-Satellite Service (FSS) spacecraft in geostationary orbits. ESAA will use14.0-14.5 GHz for uplinks, and 10.95-11.2, 11.45-11.7, and 11.7-12.2 GHz for downlinks. In the December order the Commission adopted various technical and licensing rules, while also seeking comment on whether to elevate the ESAA uplinks to co-primary (as opposed to secondary) status.

The order has now been published in the Federal Register, which means that most of the new ESAA rules will take effect on April 8, 2013. The exceptions? Sections 25.132(b)(3) and 25.227(b), (c) and (d), all of which contain “information collections” that have to be run past the Office of Management and Budget first. (The Paperwork Reduction Act strikes again!) These concern the use of non-compliant antennas and the technical data required in applications. It’ll be a couple of months, at the absolute soonest, before we can expect to see OMB’s OK.

And in a separate Federal Register notice, the Commission has also set the deadlines for comments and reply comments relative to the proposal to accord ESAA co-primary allocation status for its 14.0-14.5 GHz uplink operations. Comments are due by April 8, 2013, and replies are due by April 29.

FCC Boots Up Internet Service in Airplanes

New rules allow airlines to obtain an Internet connection for their passengers via satellite.

A recent FCC action will make it easier to read CommLawBlog on board an aircraft.

Wiring up an airplane for Wi-Fi is relatively easy. The hard part is getting a wholesale Internet connection to and from the aircraft that is adequate to serve dozens of on-board users simultaneously. One obvious answer is a broadband radio connection from the ground, but that has a downside: due to its high vantage point, the aircraft ties up frequencies over a very wide geographical area. So the airlines and their Internet-provider partners have been looking up rather than down – satellite service could do the job.

The FCC has now adopted technical and licensing rules that will allow earth stations installed on aircraft to communicate with Fixed-Satellite Service (FSS) spacecraft in geostationary orbits, using 14.0-14.5 GHz for uplinks, and 10.95-11.2, 11.45-11.7, and 11.7-12.2 GHz for downlinks. The new service will be called “Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft” (ESAA). Antennas on board the planes will have to maintain a sufficiently accurate bead on the satellite so to avoid causing interference to adjacent satellites in orbit. The FCC has been authorizing a similar service on an ad hoc basis since 2001, and evidently feels the technology is now sufficiently mature to permit routine licensing.

ESAA follows earlier rule changes that allowed the installation of FSS antennas first on ships, and then on vehicles. In the FCC’s view, the adoption of ESAA is the logical next step in that progression. Oddly, though, the “F” in FSS continues to stand for “Fixed,” even as the FCC authorizes the service for increasingly mobile applications. Although there is also a separate Mobile Satellite Service, its technical characteristics are not well suited to multi-user broadband delivery.

As a regulatory matter, the ESAA rules follow the precedent set with earth stations on ships and vehicles in denying interference protection to the 10.95-11.2 and 11.45-11.7 GHz downlink bands. This helps the new aircraft-based service conform to the existing U.S. allocations. Moreover, considering that aircraft doubtless will tap into the service while in the airspace of foreign countries and over international waters, the non-protection provision simplifies compliance with international allocations as well. Uplink operations at 14.0-14.5 GHz are authorized on a secondary basis: ESAA must avoid causing interference to, and must accept all interference from, the primary users, which include the small VSAT terminals often seen on the roofs of gas stations and chain hotels. In an accompanying Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC seeks comment on whether to elevate the ESAA uplinks to co-primary status.

Regardless of primary/secondary status, ESAA uplinks will be required to coordinate with the sensitive receivers used by the Space Research Services and the Radio Astronomy Service. The service must also comply with the CALEA rules that enable properly authorized law enforcement agencies to tap into customer communications.

See the FCC order for details on the technical and licensing rules, which are very detailed indeed. The order does not, however, address the touchy question of whether passengers will be allowed to use their onboard connections for voice service via VoIP: cell phones in the sky. That question is probably outside the FCC’s jurisdiction, so kindly direct your complaints about the loudmouth in the next seat to the FAA or the individual airline.

Comments and reply comments on upgrading 14.0-14.5 GHz operations to co-primary status will be due 75 days and 105 days, respectively, after publication in the Federal Register. As usual, we will let you know when that happens.

Report Reveals Discord In FSS

Satellite companies accuse Intelsat of anticompetitive practices

On June 15, the FCC sent its eleventh annual report to Congress on the privatization of Intelsat and Inmarsat, as required by the ORBIT Act. (ORBIT Act? That would be the Open-Market Reorganization for the Betterment of International Telecommunications Act, a law passed in 2000 to ensure that INTELSAT and Inmarsat were transformed from intergovernmental organizations to privately-held businesses in a “pro-competitive manner”.) The Act requires the FCC to report to Congress at least once a year about how things are going with INTELSAT/Inmarsat privatization, including (among other things) the views of “the industry and consumers.” 

The past few years, the report has been a snooze, mainly because Intelsat and Inmarsat have been the only ones bothering to comment. Relying on such a limited, one-sided record, the Commission’s reports to Congress have tended to describe a rosy, peaceful view of the privatization process.

This year’s report, however, is anything but rosy or peaceful. Rather, it reveals a growing acrimony within the Fixed Satellite Services (FSS) industry.

A bit of history. Before 2006, Intelsat’s product was bare satellite transponder capacity—or “space segment” capacity—sold wholesale to others (such as ARTEL, CapRock, SpaceNet and Globecomm), who then integrated it into their own end-to-end network service offerings. This changed in 2006, when Intelsat acquired its major competitor PanAmSat. As part of the deal, Intelsat became the proud owner of its own end-to-end service arm – Intelsat General Corporation (IGEN). That put Intelsat in possession of a very large share of the world’s transponder capacity, a huge debt load, and a subsidiary in direct competition with Intelsat’s wholesale customers, all of whom who are dependent on Intelsat’s capacity.  Hmm . . .

According to the commenters, Intelsat gradually succumbed to temptation and began to use its control over the space segment capacity supply to choke off IGEN’s competitors, in a classic antitrust bottleneck scenario. And as a result, this year multiple parties – including ARTEL, CapRock, SpaceNet and Globecomm (disclosure: FHH assisted Globecomm in the preparation of its comments) – felt compelled to advise the Commission that the FSS playing field may not be exactly level.

Specifically, the commenters alleged that: they have been forced to negotiate with their direct competitor IGEN for Intelsat capacity; they are precluded (by various cozy arrangements which Intelsat has struck with, among others, its primary competitor) from looking elsewhere for transponder capacity; and IGEN receives preferential pricing from its parent.  The commenters suggested a variety of specific cures, but one consistent thread runs through all their suggestions: they would all have the FCC initiate an inquiry into competitiveness in this market and to clarify Intelsat’s obligations as the recipient of “legacy” intergovernmental assets.

For its part, Intelsat sniffed that the various complaints and recommendations are just inappropriate efforts to undo the past ten years of privatization by re-regulating Intelsat as an inter-governmental organization. Furthermore, obviously casting a longing eye on the non-contentious past, Intelsat claimed that the annual ORBIT Act report is meant merely to confirm that the privatization of Intelsat is complete, and not to serve as an opportunity to carp about anticompetition and the like. According to Intelsat, the critical comments should have been tossed out as an inappropriate attempt to drag the FCC into essentially private disputes.

Appropriate or not, the various comments (all duly reflected in the Commission’s annual report) have squarely placed the issue of the competitiveness within this industry before Congress and the Commission. The FCC seems inclined to take the first cut at the issue. It concludes the report by saying:

Going forward, the Commission will consider the appropriate options for addressing those issues raised by the commenting parties and Intelsat that are within our jurisdiction under the ORBIT Act and other laws.

We wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of proceeding follows, such as a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) seeking further comment on the state of competitiveness within this sector of the satellite industry. Interested parties should take note.