Airlines win Wi-Fi management battle with airports

Airlines won a key battle in their fight with airports over control of the Wi-Fi spectrum Thursday when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruled that it -- and not local authorities -- has "exclusive jurisdiction" over the use of unlicensed spectrum.

Airports such as Logan International in Boston, which is run by the Massachusetts Port Authority, contended they had the right to manage spectrum within their boundaries to eliminate interference. Massport and Denver International Airport have installed shared-use Wi-Fi networks offering paid public Internet access, as well as access for the airlines. But the airport operators wanted to require the airlines to pay to use the networks for wireless bag scans, check-in systems and other applications.

The Massport wireless network went into operation just this week.

The Industrial Telecommunications Association, a McLean, Va.-based trade group that represents airlines and other industries regarding spectrum issues, saw the airports' efforts to control spectrum as a bottom-line issue. In a filing with the FCC in March, the ITA said the "sole motivational goal" of those efforts "is to increase airport revenue."

The ITA had asked the FCC to assert its authority over spectrum and to "prohibit airport authorities from limiting or restricting tenants from implementing and operating a wireless system." In its decision, the FCC came down soundly on the side of airlines and other users of spectrum in multi-tenant environments, which would include airports, hotels and conference and convention centers.

The FCC said in its ruling that "we reaffirm that, under the Communications Act, the FCC has exclusive authority to resolve matters involving radio frequency interference when unlicensed devices are being used, regardless of venue."

Laura Smith, ITA president and CEO, called the ruling "a big score for our airline members." Until the decision came down, ITA member airlines "had experienced a significant amount of difficulty" in deploying their own wireless systems because of airport mandates that tenants pay to use a shared wireless system.

Jenna Obluck, a spokeswoman for the United Air Lines Inc. division of Elk Grove Township, Ill.-based UAL Corp., said the "the FCC has made the right decision. United can now install Wi-Fi systems in our tenant space, bag rooms, bag-claim areas and on the ramp without months of negotiations and unnecessary costs."

Chuck Cannon, a spokesman for Denver International -- which is operated by the city of Denver -- declined to comment on the FCC ruling because its attorney believes "the matter is still in litigation."

Massport officials didn't return calls from Computerworld for comment.

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