American Challenges Logan Bid to Monopolize WiFi

Oct. 8--American Airlines, the biggest carrier at Logan International Airport, is accusing Logan officials of "strong-arming" to crush competitive alternatives to the airport's new high-speed Internet access service.

The airline also alleges that the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, trumped up "security concerns" and terminal lease violations as a pretext for shutting down airlines' WiFi service. It contends Massport wanted to force passengers to pay $8 a day for Massport-controlled wireless Internet service.

"Massport's objective is clearly to force all WiFi access onto the [Massport] system, either through strong-arming other providers or by preventing carriers from providing Internet access to their own patrons," wrote American Airlines attorney Alec Bramlett in a filing to the Federal Communications Commission late last month

Massport spokeswoman Danny Levy said Massport's security concerns "are indeed accurate." A profusion of airline-operated WiFi signals, Levy said, could jam radio frequencies used by the State Police and Transportation Security Administration.

Levy said the TSA has already begun testing use of the same Logan WiFi network for protected security operations. "Additional applications are planned for the future, but I cannot get into specifics," she said.

WiFi, which stands for wireless fidelity, offers multi-megabit Internet connections for laptop computers and other devices within so-called hot spots. Hot spots are zones within about 150 feet of a special radio transmitter that operates on nonlicensed airwaves similar to those used by baby monitors, cordless phones, and walkie-talkies.

Massport first began offering its own airport-wide WiFi access at Logan in June 2004. Since then, the agency has ordered American to remove a competing WiFi service in its Admirals Club lounge in Terminal B, which wireless communications provider T-Mobile USA Inc. has been operating since 2000.

In July Massport also ordered Continental Airlines Inc. to stop providing WiFi at its frequent-flier club, and ordered Delta Air Lines Inc. not to deploy WiFi in its new Terminal A.

Many Logan travelers who relied on the services for Internet access have protested, accusing Massport of trying to snuff out private-sector competition for its own Internet service. Continental filed a complaint against Massport with the FCC this summer, which the FCC is expected to continue to review for several more weeks before taking any action.

American, which served 22 percent of Logan passengers last year, had avoided making any public comment. Because Massport is their landlord, airlines assiduously strive to avoid public battles with the powerful authority.

Bramlett, American Airlines' attorney, said Massport is using security concerns and claims that airlines who offer WiFi are violating their Massport leases as a smokescreen to fight competition. Referring to a lengthy series of talks dating to May 2004, Bramlett said: "In these meetings and discussions, Massport consistently made clear that its concerns were commercial in nature," revealing "a patent effort by Massport to control Internet access" at Logan.

Massport attorney Christine M. Gill maintains that the WiFi issue is about security.

"As an airport operator in the post-9/11 world, Massport's primary function is to maintain a safe and secure facility for passengers in a highly complex environment," she said. "The proliferation of individual WiFi antennas at Logan could cause radio interference and disrupt the existing or planned communications of the TSA, State Police, and airlines."

Because Massport can have full control over which radio channels are used and how, Gill added, "the operation of the central WiFi antenna system that everyone can use will prevent interference."


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