Utility Officials Outside Mass. Protest WiFi Ban at Airport

Feb. 8, 2006
Utility Officials said all kinds of landlords could force tenants to shut off their WiFi and use landlord-controlled WiFi services if the FCC doesn't overturn Massport's policy.

Feb. 6--The Massachusetts Port Authority's move to shut down private alternatives to $8-a-day WiFi Internet access at Logan International Airport have sparked an interstate brouhaha.

After major airline, telecommunications, and electronics trade associations denounced Logan's policy, utility commissioners from nine states and the District of Columbia told the Federal Communications Commission last week that it could set a dangerous nationwide precedent.

"Massport's actions, if allowed to stand, would result in a monopolized wireless broadband market at Logan International Airport and could set a dangerous precedent of encouraging other regulatory authorities across the country to seek to limit competition," 10 state officials said in a filing with the FCC, which is reviewing a Continental Airlines challenge to the Logan ban.

All kinds of landlords, they said, could force tenants to shut off their WiFi and use landlord-controlled WiFi services if the FCC doesn't overturn Massport's policy.

Officials signing the letter included Rhode Island Public Utility Commission chairman Elia Germani, Colorado Public Service Commission chairman Gregory Sopkin, and commissioners from Arkansas, California, Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington D.C.

Soon after activating its own WiFi service at Logan in summer 2004, Massport ordered Continental to remove a WiFi transmitter from its frequent-flyer club in Terminal C and ordered American Airlines and Delta Air Lines not to offer WiFi.

Logan officials have repeatedly denied they are trying to squelch private WiFi competition, saying their sole concern is avoiding the risk of proliferating WiFi transmitters that could interfere with airline and State Police radio networks. Two companies that operate international networks of WiFi "hot spots," zones of up to 300 feet in radius in which computer users can get megabit-speed Internet access wirelessly, have signed roaming deals with Massport that let their monthly subscribers get access to the Logan system at no additional price: Boingo Wireless Inc. and iPass Inc.

Massport spokeswoman Danny Levy said airlines installing WiFi in passenger clubs would be violating their lease terms. "Massport disagrees that federal law prohibits us from enforcing the clear terms of our lease with our tenants," she said. "Massport, as well as the airport community around the country, remains deeply concerned about the installation by our tenants of potentially hundreds of antennae in such a unique environment as an airport, in the case of Logan, which is a tightly confined, highly complex, and safety-sensitive environment."

But critics contend that private WiFi systems operate now at dozens of US airports without causing any problems. WiFi systems use unlicensed parts of the radio spectrum, similar to a baby monitor or cordless phone, that have no overlap with FCC-licensed radio channels used by airlines, control towers, police, and other airport officials.

The state commissioners called Massport's argument about radio interference spurious, "Although Massport alleges that Continental's WiFi system could interfere with tower communications or assist terrorists, it has failed to substantiate any such allegations," they said, adding: "Massport should not be allowed to flex its regulatory muscle to exclude others seeking to use unlicensed spectrum from providing wireless services or to otherwise pursue an unfair competitive advantage."

FCC officials have been meeting for months with parties on all sides of the issue, but have given no indication when the agency might rule on Continental's petition to overturn the Massport ban.