Julius Genachowski’s FCC Swan Song: Get Faster Wi-Fi on Planes

FCC chairman says at his final commission meeting that he'll leave the agency on May 17


The airline seat could be about to lose its prized status as the last respite in America from 24/7 broadband Internet access.

In Federal Communications Commission’s Chairman Julius Genachowski’s last meeting as FCC chairman, the FCC on Thursday took the first step toward providing significant additional bandwidth for faster airlines wi-fi.

Genachowski also announced at the meeting that May 17 will be his last day at the agency.

Commissioners adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that suggests taking some of the spectrum now used for satellite and some scientific purposes to allow far faster bandwidth by airline passengers.  

FCC commissioners in approving the notice admitted some regrets about the prospect of turning the airline seat into just one more place for 24/7 access, but also cited the need for better service.

“Air travel stands out as one of the few places where you can’t always rely on a connection,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “Being cut off can mean you miss an important e-mail, critical news from home or the chance to send a time sensitive document.”

Commissioner Ajit Pai said it’s not just businesses who desire the access.

“It’s happened to almost every sports fan. You are flying during the NFL game or March Madness. You boot up your laptop and lo and behold there is no wi-fi or worse, you get a connection, and it is so slow and pricey, you almost wish you hadn’t.”

Airline wi-fi is currently offered under two kinds of systems. One hooks planes up to satellites; the other hooks planes to ground connections. The FCC is proposing a major boost in the bandwidth available for providing ground-to-air system.

Genachowski said the action “would help meet consumer demand by offering airline passengers better access to broadband.” He said he hoped the move would also offer more competitive pressure to improve inflight broadband services.

The FCC action means the FCC is seeking comment on the proposal. A final vote on implementation isn’t likely until next year.

Genachowski opened the meeting by announcing his last day at the agency. President Obama has nominated Tom Wheeler as the new FCC chairman. Wheeler, a former executive of both the cable TV and the wireless association has been  managing director of Core Capital Partners and the co-founder of SmartBrief, a targeted news service about the media industry.

Pending Wheeler’s Senate confirmation, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn will serve as interim FCC chairman.