The Massachusetts Port Authority is feuding with Continental Airlines Inc. over wireless access at Boston's Logan International Airport, and the airline has now asked federal authorities to step in to resolve the fight.
Massport, the state agency that operates the airport, last month asked the airline to stop offering customers free Wi-Fi service, saying the wireless service "presents an unacceptable risk" to other communication equipment.
In a July 5 letter to Continental about the issue, Massport officials claimed that Continental is violating its lease by offering the free service and said that if the airline does not remove its antenna, the state agency will take "all necessary steps to have the antenna removed."
The real problem, according to a source close to the situation, is that Continental's free Wi-Fi competes with Logan's US$7.95-per-day service.
"Continental has been providing free Wi-Fi in all our President's Clubs, including our international clubs, since 2004," said Continental spokeswoman Julie King. "We think providing it is consistent with the FCC's regulations, and we also think it's permissible under the terms of our lease with Massport."
Continental has turned to the US Federal Communications Commission to settle the matter. Massport declined to comment, citing the ongoing fight.
"This could get touchy," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner. "Probably this will end up in court if Continental has the money. I suspect Continental will back down. [There's] not much for them to gain here."
Dulaney said the following issues are involved:
- Wi-Fi is in an unlicensed band. That means anyone can operate anything in that band as long as it complies with the FCC's Part 15 rules, which all WLAN equipment does.
- If Continental uses wired transmission facilities owned by the airport, the airline doesn't have a case.
- Given that landowners also own the airspace above their property, Massport could claim ownership of the air rights. If the wireless use is not mentioned in the current lease, then Continental may have an advantage until the lease is renewed.
"I suspect you will continue to see this type of thing. It's happened before and will happen again," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "The basic problem is that airports [and other public facilities] see wireless as a potential revenue stream, whereas Continental makes its revenue on plane fares and sees wireless as a way to keep their customers happy."
Gold says Chicago's O'Hare airport has had similar issues with the airlines, making them use the Wi-Fi service O'Hare provides, even for their own internal needs. For example, he said, United Air Lines wanted to connect its workers wirelessly and was forced to use the airport-owned infrastructure rather than its own.
"What the airport authorities fail to understand is, if they keep up with this 'extortion,' users will find other ways [like paying for cellular broadband services]," he said. "Maybe not immediately, but these will be more affordable over the next couple of years and more people will sign up, especially when it costs me US$8 for 30 minutes of Wi-Fi to check my mail. OK, they say it's for a full day, but how often do I spend a full day at an airport? I'm there for 30 minutes before my flight or between connections."
As for FCC rules, Gold said, in theory, they regulate all radio systems exclusively. But the FCC has so far avoided getting involved in these kinds of disputes. The airports argue that they are not regulating radio, just stopping others from installing infrastructure such as access points and antennas. Users, meanwhile, contend that the airports are restricting radio access, Gold said.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see something end up in the courts eventually," he said.