Regulation changes clear way for in-flight Internet access

America's Federal Communications Commission has approved a new set of rules aimed at making it easier for airlines to offer passengers an in-flight Internet service, in a move that the UK's telecommunications regulator, Ofcom, is likely to be monitoring closely.

The agency said it hopes the new rules will halve the amount of time it takes to get Internet services for aircraft approved. Since 2001, the FCC has sanctioned satellite-based Internet systems for aeroplanes on an ad-hoc basis. The new rules formalise the application process, which should reduce administrative burdens that have stalled onboard Wi-Fi rollouts in the past.

"Whether travelling for work or leisure, [people] increasingly expect broadband access everywhere they go," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.

"These new rules will help airlines and broadband providers offer high-speed Internet to passengers, including by accelerating by up to 50 per cent the processing of applications to provide broadband on planes. This will enable providers to bring broadband to planes more efficiently, helping passengers connect with friends, family, or the office," he added.

Instead of having to license onboard Internet systems on an ad-hoc basis, airlines will now be able to simply test the technology to ensure it meets FCC standards and does not interfere with any aircraft systems. From there, airlines will need to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration - the US equivalent of Britain's Civil Aviation Authority - which oversees the safety of in-flight systems.

The FCC said the new rules should increase the availability of onboard Wi-Fi.

For years now, travellers have been instructed to turn off all electronic devices before take-off and landing, while Internet connectivity has been limited to the in-flight Wi-Fi provided by certain airlines. Many have questioned whether this is entirely necessary, and the FCC in December called for "greater use" of tablets, eBook readers, and other portable electronic devices during flights.

At this point, the FCC allows for the use of in-flight data and voice services via dedicated air-to-ground frequencies that were previously used for the seat-back phones. The use of mobile phones in the 800 MHz band or other wireless devices on flights, however, is prohibited by the FCC because of potential interference with wireless networks on the ground.

In 2004, the commission opened a proceeding that investigated whether or not to lift that ban. But the proceeding was terminated in 2007 because the evidence submitted by interested parties was not enough to convince the FCC that lifting the ban would be safe.

The FAA, meanwhile, bans the use of in-flight wireless devices - and regulates the use of portable electronic devices - because of possible interference with the plane's navigation and communication systems. In March, the FAA said it was going to take a "fresh look" at the use of electronics on planes.

Aircraft manufacturers are among those committed to advancing in-flight Internet access, with Boeing pledging Wi-Fi for 2013, and wireless streaming capabilities by 2014.