WASHINGTON - Federal regulators voted Wednesday to give airline passengers high-speed Internet connections while they fly.
The unanimous vote by the Federal Communications Commission means air travelers could be surfing the Web by 2006.
"If there is a theme for this meeting, it is that we want (new technologies) on the land, in the air, and on the sea" FCC Chairman Michael Powell said. "We are pushing the frontiers in order to bring the information age to all corners of the world."
The FCC also voted to solicit comments from the public about ending the ban on in-flight use of cell phones. Among the issues to consider are whether passengers want to be surrounded by cell phone conversations.
"The ability to communicate is a vital one, but good cell phone 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."
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group, said allowing Internet access would "make business travelers more efficient and while away the time for a lot of other passengers. This is all the wave of the future here."
Currently, the only way passengers on domestic flights can communicate with the ground is through phones usually built into the seat backs. That service isn't very popular: It costs far more than conventional or cell phones - about $3.99 a minute - and the reception often is poor.
Of the three companies that initially offered that service on commercial jets, only Verizon Airfone remains. It has phones on about 1,500 jets.
The FCC approved a measure to restructure how frequencies for such "air-to-ground" services are used and allow the airlines to offer wireless high-speed Internet connections.
Left undecided was the issue of how many companies the FCC would allow, through an auction, to offer such services. Verizon Airfone maintains that letting one company handle the service would ensure the best quality.
Others, including Boeing Co. and AirCell, argue for two competitors to prevent one company from having a monopoly. FCC officials said the auction would take place within a year.
Once plans are completed and planes outfitted with the equipment, high-speed Internet access might be found on commercial domestic flights by 2006, said Jack Blumenstein, chairman and CEO of Louisville, Colo.-based AirCell.
The timeline on when air travelers would be able to start using cell phones in flight is murkier, in part because both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration ban the practice.
The FCC took up the issue Wednesday in an effort to start public discussion, and commissioners might eventually relax the rules or lift the ban entirely. Of most concern to FCC officials is how using a cell phone in an airplane would interfere with cell phone use on the ground.
The FAA concern is over whether airborne cell phone could interfere with a plane's navigation and electrical systems, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said. The technology used on seat-back phones and being considered for use for wireless Internet hookups causes no such interference.
The FAA has commissioned a private, independent firm to study the issue. Results aren't due until 2006. The FAA will not make its decision on cell phone use until after the study is completed, Brown said.
Allowing high-speed Internet access and cell phone use on planes could offer cash-strapped airline companies a new source for revenues, said Doug Wills, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the major airlines' trade group.
Still, airlines must weigh the demand for such service against the desire of other passengers for a quiet cabin, Wills said. "Some people see a cell-free environment as a good thing," he said.