In a slam dunk 4-0 vote, the Federal Communications Commission just proposed kicking off a process that could eventually make your experience cruising the Interwebs at 30,000 feet considerably less, shall we say, sedate. How? By auctioning off the rights to recently freed up airwaves, and allowing Internet service providers to share those airwaves with satellite companies.
According to the FCC:
The Commission proposes to establish an air-ground mobile broadband service, using a ground-based network to communicate with planes, by taking advantage of technical innovations to expand sharing of certain spectrum among users. Expanded availability of in-flight Wi-Fi will help meet demand from travelers to connect to a full range of communications services while flying in the contiguous United States. More options for in-flight broadband are likely to increase competition, improve the quality of service, and lead to lower prices.
Today’s in-flight Internet service involves either satellite (an antenna mounted atop the plane) or air-to-ground systems (an antenna mounted beneath the plane, communicating with terrestrial towers). Anyone who’s used or had to pay monthly for satellite-based Internet knows it’s fraught with limitations, including speed (in particular latency) issues as well as high data usage prices and ridiculously punitive data caps. Air-to-ground communications are much less expensive, which is where this FCC proposal comes in, which — if it comes off, as hoped, within the next few years — could result in much more reliable in-flight broadband that matches or exceeds the speeds of existing ground-based service.
How fast are we talking? As the New York Times reports:
The new system would share the 14.0-14.5 gigahertz band of the electromagnetic spectrum, a 500-megahertz band that is far wider than the current 4-megahertz band used in air-to-ground systems. All of that means that the new system would be capable of transmitting data at up to 300 gigabits per second — or 30 times the average home broadband speed.
[Update: the Times just issued a correction to this statement, writing that "The proposal envisions a combined service speed of up to 300 gigabits per second, to be shared among all the aircraft using the system at a given moment" -- still considerably faster than existing speeds, but not "30,000 times the average home speed," which the above implies.]
“The reality is that we expect and often need to be able to get online 24/7, at home, in an office or on a plane,” said F.C.C. chairman Julius Genachowski. “This will enable business and leisure travelers aboard aircraft in the United States to be more productive and have more choices in entertainment, communications and social media, and it could lower prices.”
Current in-flight Wi-Fi tops out at 3 megabits per second — slow but functional. I’ve used Gogo on shorter Delta hops as well as longer cross-country jaunts, and it’s not bad, usually zippy enough to scan the headlines, check email, send instant messages (“Look at me! I’m texting over Mount St. Helens!”), tweet pictures of terrifying cloud formations, follow my flight on whatever tracker or do actual work in TIME’s content management system. While it’s nothing like the speeds I get at home (you know, surfing cat videos), it’s always consistent, though I suspect that says more about the lack of fellow surfers at this point: with providers like Gogo charging $14 for one day of service, in-flight Wi-Fi isn’t cheap.
This is all early days stuff, of course. The FCC still has to decide how to divvy up that 500 MHz spectrum block, and as the Times notes, the proposal isn’t entirely controversy-free: the Satellite Industry Association – a D.C. based satellite lobby group – has complained to the FCC that future air-to-ground service proposals could interfere with and hamper satellite service (you’ll want to check out Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica’s terrifically detailed breakdown for more on this).
Still, the notion that we may soon be able to surf in-flight at ground-worthy speeds is tantalizing. Now we just need the Federal Aviation Administration to take the FCC’s recommendation last December that the FAA “enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable devices” seriously.