FCC sides with Continental in Logan WiFi dispute

As the communication world turns: In a decision which may well have wide-ranging repercussions for hot spots, hot zones and other efforts to offer public Internet access, the FCC has thrown its regulatory weight behind Continental Airlines in the airline's battle with the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport). The airline wants to install WiFi service in its passenger lounges at Logan International, but Massport insists this would endanger emergency communication at the airport.

The FCC ruled late last week that Massport's attempt to block other organizations from offering wireless Internet service violated FCC rules which allow businesses and consumers to install WiFi antennas without landlord approval. "Today's decision ensures that the WiFi bands remain free and open to travelers, who can make productive use of their time while waiting to catch their next flight in an airport," FCC commissioner Michael Copps said. "[Travelers] will be able to choose from among multiple providers, including members-only airport lounges as well as coffee shops or businesses that may choose to attract customers by offering WiFi service at lower prices than the airport authority offers."

The FCC ruling may end a bitter, two-year battle. In June 2004 Logan began to offer a $7.95 a day WiFi service at the airport. The service is free to travelers whose Internet provider has a roaming agreement with Advanced Wireless Group, the New York company operating the service. In July 2004 Continental installed its own free WiFi system in its President's Club frequent-flyer lounge at Logan. It took Massport a few months of haggling with Continental, but in summer 2005 the airport authorities ordered Continental to shut down its system, arguing they were doing so for public safety reasons. Specifically, Massport said that Continental's--and other airlines'--WiFi would interfere, and even jam, WiFi-based communication among emergency crews during an emergency at the airport. The FCC was unpersuaded by Massport's arguments, saying that the agency's WiFi safety exception applied to potential dangers to the public's physical safety and health, not interference with other radio device users. 
Note that Continental defied Massport's orders and continued to offer its WiFi service to passengers. American Airlines, however, stopped its T-Mobile WiFi service, and Delta had decided to scrap plans to offer WiFi in its lounges.

For more on the FCC Logan decision:
- see Donna Goodison's Boston Herald report