Boston airport bans free Wi-Fi

by Peter Howe, Boston Globe

Logan International Airport officials' ongoing quest to ban airline lounges from offering passengers free WiFi Internet services is angering a growing array of powerful Capitol Hill lobbying groups, who say Logan could set a dangerous nationwide precedent for squelching wireless services.

Already under fire from the biggest airline lobby, the Air Transport Association, and the manufacturer-backed Consumer Electronics Association, Logan officials are also coming under new criticism from the top US wireless lobby, CTIA-The Wireless Association. All three groups are siding with Continental Airlines Inc., which has asked the Federal Communications Commission to overturn a Logan order last year shutting off Continental's WiFi service in its Presidents Club lounge in Logan's Terminal C.

Soon after activating its own $8-a-day WiFi service in the summer of 2004, the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, ordered Continental and American Airlines to shut down WiFi services in their Logan lounges. Massport also ordered Delta Air Lines Inc. not to turn on a planned WiFi service in its new $500 million Terminal A that opened last March.

WiFi, which is short for wireless fidelity, offers Internet access at speeds of up to 11 megabits per second over unlicensed airwave channels, within ''hot spot" zones up to 300 feet in radius covered by small Net-connected transmitters. At Logan, subscribers get some free content, including flight and weather information, but have to pay $8 for a 24-hour access to the full Internet.

Massport has consistently argued its policy is only trying to prevent a proliferation of private WiFi transmitters that could interfere with wireless networks used by airlines, State Police, and the Transportation Security Administration. WiFi service providers are free to negotiate so-called roaming deals, Massport officials say, that would let their subscribers who pay for monthly access use the Logan network. But major providers including T-Mobile USA have balked at Massport's proposed terms, saying the airport authority seeks excessive profits.

''What Massport is trying to do is create a monopoly on unlicensed spectrum in the airport, and we think it's blatantly contrary to federal law," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for CTIA, which represents wireless carriers including Verizon, Cingular, and Sprint Nextel. CTIA recently disclosed that it has begun informally lobbying the FCC to overturn the Massport WiFi ban, and is preparing to step into the FCC case officially this week, Farren said.

The FCC has been reviewing the Continental-Massport case since July, but has given no indication of how soon it might issue a ruling.

Closer to home, Massport's position has also prompted opposition from Partners HealthCare System, parent organization of Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Partners is rolling out many new wireless-based systems for doctors and nurses to check patient records, enter medical chart data, and order prescriptions.

Rickey L. Hampton, Partners's wireless communications manager, said the hospitals are worried that if the FCC upholds Massport's ban on airport tenants offering WiFi, it could set a precedent for landlords who lease space to Partners. ''We believe the impact could extend far beyond the aviation industry [and] have a chilling effect on unlicensed wireless technologies as a whole," Hampton said, by empowering virtually any landlord to shut down tenants' wireless networks.

Massport attorney Christine M. Gill said the charges of a Massport WiFi monopoly ''may be great sloganeering" but misstate many key legal issues. Reiterating that public safety and prevention of interference are Massport's concerns, Gill said that ''Congress has not granted the FCC the authority to preempt private lease restrictions on the siting of antennas used for fixed wireless signals." Gill also said Continental and its allies have hung their arguments on a law that applies only to wireless video signals, not WiFi.

However, Gill also acknowledged that ''installation of a WiFi antenna in Continental's Presidents Club would have a detrimental economic impact on Massport." Logan officials would have to ''devote substantial resources to monitor the installation of antennas" by Continental and other airlines to make sure they wouldn't cause interference, Gill said, and ''Massport would also lose revenue associated with the operation of the central WiFi antenna system at Logan."

Despite the fierce opposition, Massport has had backing from an airport authority trade group, Airports Council International-North America, and four other airport authorities.

Matthew C. Ames, an attorney for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs Dulles International Airport and Washington Reagan National Airport, where airport-controlled wireless networks are being installed, backed Massport's policy. Airports are too complex an environment, Ames said, to allow totally uncontrolled wireless services. ''Allowing individual users free rein can make it impossible for others -- including the airport -- to operate effectively," Ames said in a recent letter to the FCC, adding: ''Chaos is not a practical solution."

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