Not since the first mummified squirrel went up for sale on eBay back in 1997 has an auction been so worth watching--and so widely ignored. As I write this, we are in week three of the FCC Auction 65
. Up for bid: one of three bands in the 800MHz air-to-ground radio telephone range. It's a lot more exciting than it sounds.
In the days when people thought that cellular communication from seatback credit card phones was a pretty neat idea, the FCC thought it could fill that bandwidth easily as people delivered important voice messages, such as "I'm flying over the Rockies," at five bucks a minute. As it turned out, most airborne drones were air-raged into silence (and sometimes permanently hobbled by a knee-crushing recline from ticked-off passengers in the row ahead).
So good old 800MHz languished in the air until someone at the FCC hit upon the next great idea for it: airborne Internet. Think about it: all those people tired of watching airline-edited Jennifer Aniston movies instead could surf over to their favorite fan sites and download clips of Jennifer Aniston from old reruns of Friends.
A winning idea--and one that would surely be worth a few million ducats to some enterprising communications company. Thus was born Auction 65.
I've been tracking this auction for more than a two weeks now, as the bidding went through more than 90 rounds and crept up past $35 million. And with each passing bid I've been wondering how this will all turn out, though I have a nasty suspicion that it won't be good.
Major Tom to ground control
All those people tired of watching airline-edited Jennifer Aniston movies instead could surf over to their favorite fan sites and download clips of Jennifer Aniston from old reruns of Friends.
The story so far is that nine companies have been bidding, including Space Data Spectrum Holdings, Acadia Broadband, and Verizon Airfone (the same company that, in a previous incarnation, introduced payphones to seatbacks). Each bidder has prequalified by developing technologies to create airborne wireless networks that can beam Internet traffic to the planet's surface via radio transmitters. All they need is an FCC license to use the radio bandwidth--and the right deals with the right airlines.
Airborne Internet is not exactly revolutionary. Lufthansa and SAS have been providing inflight Internet access in Europe for more than two years now, and the national airlines of Japan and Singapore have been doing the same in Asia. The Connexion service they use was developed by Boeing, and costs them between 10 and 30 US dollars per flight.
But none of these services can work in U.S. air space because the FCC hasn't issued a spectrum license. That's what this auction's about.
The flight plan
The airlines in this country are famously pressed for cash, and it's hard to imagine that they will fall over themselves for the right to provide inflight Wi-Fi networks.
By the time you read this, the auction will probably be over, and one or two companies will have a spectrum license to tap into the 800MHz band. Part of me is happy about this. Finally, we'll be able to deal with my inflight boredom and post-flight jitters by dropping an e-mail or two to whomever we're meeting at our destination. Or when we see someone other than Jennifer Aniston on our inflight movies, we can look them up on the Internet Movie Database
to figure out what other films they've starred in.
But don't expect to Google from 20,000 feet this year. Whoever wins Auction 65 will have to iron out agreements with American carriers to install their equipment. And more importantly, they'll need to figure out how to support a network in flight.
The airlines in this country are famously pressed for cash, and it's hard to imagine that they will fall over themselves for the right to provide inflight Wi-Fi networks. The people who just laid out upward of $31 million for a spectrum license are going to want to make back their huge initial outlay, but they will clearly have to share some of it with the airlines. And figuring out those details will take some work.
Verizon Airfone stated earlier this year that if it won the spectrum license, it would take them 12 months to roll out the deals and the technology for inflight Internet access. That sounds ambitious, but assuming the company does it, we could be booking our rental cars from somewhere over the Rockies en route to our next summer vacation.
"Hello. I'm flying over the Rockies"
Next stop: Instant messaging, and with it, more noise pollution: a thousand chimes as new IMs arrive, a constant welter of door slamming as chat buddies sign off.
This year-from-now projection assumes that airlines and the Internet access provider can leap over some of the hurdles, both technological and social. Let's consider what happens to people on airlines. They feel isolated from their friends and too close to people they don't know. Attention spans wander, and they become less tolerant. Let's add Internet access to that mix.
First stop, VoIP: When the meter's running, the calls will be short. That's why inflight cellular communication hasn't led to more inflight murders. But when passengers can piggyback on all-you-can-eat broadband connections to make free Skype calls, they might yak for hours. That's great for the yammerer, but it will lead to cataclysmic bouts of air rage from everybody else--mark my words.
My money's on these networks restricting VoIP. It's relatively trivial for a network provider to block the ports used by VoIP systems, but it will take finessing to sell restricted Internet access to the stressed and surly ranks of airline passengers. And naturally, many of them won't get the message until they have laid out their 10 to 30 bucks for Internet access. Which means, of course, when they get an error message from Skype, they will take it out on the flight attendant.
Next stop, instant messaging and, with it, more noise pollution: a thousand chimes as new IMs arrive, a constant welter of door slamming as chat buddies sign off. Then, the screams of pain as recliners retaliate by adjusting their seatbacks to punish the noise polluter behind them.
From a technical standpoint, blocking IM use isn't as easy as blocking VoIP. Dealing with noise pollution will rely on the individual's consideration for fellow passengers. In other words, the flight attendants would have to intervene, though they have enough on their plates.
And then there's the question of people wishing to view inappropriate material. Are these networks going to install library-style filters to block Web sites? And if so, how are they going to deal with the inevitable tech support questions?
So do we really want to invite the Internet onto airplanes? I'm as big a Net monkey as the next twitchy-fingered user of instant messaging, but I'm not sure that inflight Internet is a wholly good idea. Oh, sure, I could use it without ticking off anybody else. But I can't trust any group of people who routinely crush the knees of their fellow humans in their quest for personal comfort to be considerate when online.
I'm just glad it's not me who's paying tens of millions of dollars for the opportunity to pitch this service to the airlines.
If Matt Lake put up his opinions about Internet access for bidding through the FCC auction system, would he get $32 million? Throw in your two cents' worth in the feedback section below.