U.S. 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.
As CBS News Correspondent
"I travel a lot on business, I travel every week, and to be in communication with the office is vital," said passenger Art Swanberg.
"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 Wednesday after a unanimous vote approving the new technology for U.S. 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 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."
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 cell phones — about $3.99 a minute — and the reception often is poor.
The FCC on Wednesday 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. It would cost roughly $100,000 to outfit a plane with the necessary equipment.
CBS Tech Analyst Larry Magid notes that neither laptops accessing the Internet nor a cell phone on airplanes communicate directly with the ground. The airplane would have to be equipped with its own satellite system that relays the calls or Internet connections to ground stations.
"Anytime passengers use this sort of two-way radio technology, it raises communication and safety issues with both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration," said Magid.
Left undecided was how many companies the FCC would allow, through an auction, to offer the services. Verizon Airfone, which is the only company that offers seatback phone service, maintains that letting one company handle the service would ensure the best quality.
Others, including 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 chief executive officer of 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 seatback 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.