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.