Surf and Talk at 35,000 Feet

Mornings like this one are all too common for me. While the family sleeps upstairs, I start writing downstairs, using my WiFi-enabled Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) PowerBook. CNBC's Squawk Box is often on in the background. Though I'm usually a little bleary-eyed at first, I wake up quickly. Web access for me is like a good cup of coffee for others.

But it's not like I'm some WiFi guru who is above all things caffeinated. Hardly. I just like staying connected. Maybe even a little too much.

Marketers know there are millions of others like me out there, which is probably why the heads of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Wednesday voted 5-0 to open up new frequencies for relatively cheap wireless Web access on flights. (International carriers such as Lufthansa and Japan Airlines have had in-flight WiFi, but outfitting a plane for such service has been reported to cost as much as $500,000.)

I admit it: I couldn't be happier about this development. Yet I'm not so thrilled about the price of getting this perk. The FCC also voted Wednesday to lift the ban on passengers using cell phones while in the air. Oy. Can you imagine 30, 50, or even 100 people on an airplane trying to talk over engine noise, while you're trying to catch some sleep? Not me.

In its wisdom the FCC has opened these connected rulings for public comment. I, for one, am hoping they'll keep WiFi and ditch cell phone usage. (Yes, I know. Post 9-11, there's an argument to be made that mobile phones ought to be usable on flights. But emergencies are emergencies. Passengers don't need permission when their lives are in danger.)

My sense is that it's likely the FCC will ultimately rule in favor of both changes. And that could be good news for the airlines. With profits lagging, domestic carriers such as American (NYSE: AMR  ) , Continental (NYSE: CAL  ) , Delta (NYSE: DAL  ) , and bankrupt United need pricey new in-flight services to sell. Current in-seat airfones can charge you $5 just to check your voice mail, and WiFi has been known to run as much as $8 for each half-hour. Pricey, indeed.

How soon could all this arrive? Well, how long can you wait? Everyone from Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) to Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) to mega-wireless carrier Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) has an interest in seeing these developments take off. That's a few too many pilots crowding the cockpit. Don't expect this industry to take flight without some lengthy delays first.

For related Foolishness:

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a certified WiFi junkie. He doesn't own stock in any of the companies mentioned in the story. To check out Tim's portfolio, have a peek at his Fool profile here.


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