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FCC OK's wireless Net access on flights

Agency also will rethink in-flight cellphone ban

WASHINGTON -- Domestic air travelers could be surfing the Web by 2006 with government-approved technology that allows people access to high-speed Internet connections while they fly.

"We are pushing the frontiers in order to bring the information age to all corners of the world," Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell said yesterday after a unanimous vote approving the new technology for US airlines. "We want it on the land, in the air, and on the sea."

The FCC also voted to solicit public comment about ending the ban on in-flight use of cellphones. Among the issues to consider are whether passengers want to be surrounded by cellphone conversations.

"The ability to communicate is a vital one, but good cellphone etiquette is also essential," commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said. "Our job is to see if this is possible and then let consumers work out the etiquette."

The FCC approved a wireless Internet offering from Boeing Co. that uses satellites to get air travelers online. Boeing's "Connexion" service is offered by some international carriers, including some flights to and from the United States.

Domestic carriers have shied away from it in large part because of the cost of outfitting planes with the technology, estimated to be about $500,000 per jet.

Currently, the only way passengers on domestic flights can communicate with the ground is through phones usually built into seatbacks.

That service isn't very popular: It costs far more than conventional or cellphones -- about $3.99 a minute -- and the reception often is poor.

The FCC yesterday approved a measure to restructure how such "air-to-ground" services are used and allow the airlines to offer wireless high-speed Internet connections through the frequencies used by the seatback phones.

Left undecided was how many companies the FCC would allow, through an auction, to offer the services.

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