Cell phones to take flight

FAQ Consensus is building to relax rules that since 1991 have banned cell phone use on U.S. commercial flights.

FAQAir travelers beware: Cell yell at 30,000 feet is coming.

As shown by the flurry of comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission in the past few days, there's a consensus building to relax rules that since 1991 have banned cell phone use on U.S. commercial flights.

Now the hard work begins--deciding to what extent to ease the rules. U.S. law enforcement, which doesn't like the idea at all, and lobbyists at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association represent the two extremes of the argument. The questions and answers here focus on when the rules will be relaxed, the technology that'll make it happen and why there's a ban in the first place.


What's new:
Consensus is building to relax rules that since 1991 have banned cell phone use on U.S. commercial flights.

Bottom line:
These questions and answers focus on why the rules exist, when they will be relaxed and what technology will be at the center of it all.

More stories about cell phone use on planes.

When will I be able to make a cell phone call on an airplane?
Don't expect the rules to be relaxed until December 2006 at the earliest, and it'll more likely be early 2007. The Federal Aviation Administration has the ultimate say, and it's waiting for the second phase of a study being conducted by an advisory agency, the RTCA, or Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics. The private, nonprofit company was organized under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The second phase of the RTCA's report, to include its recommendations, is due by December 2006.

Will my cell phone call cause interference?
Maybe by then the industry will have found the answer to nagging interference issues the FCC believes are now clearly still in evidence. The commission noted in the Feb. 16, 2005, order that began its investigation of easing the cell phone rules that "while some assert that the technology exists that will allow cell phones...we are not prepared to take this step...without further development of the record on possible technical solutions."

The FCC continued: "While some say phones can be used on aircraft without causing unwanted interference, no party has provided sufficient detail explaining how eliminating the ban would actually work."

Can I make a call on board a plane?
There are a number of ways. One involves the familiar seat-back phones. Another involves the relatively new tandem of more broadband-enabled airplanes, and the voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, software to let Internet connections double as a phone line.

Why the cell phone ban?
The cell phone ban went into effect in 1991, mostly to eliminate the possibility that cell phone calls on airplanes would interfere with cell conversations on the ground, as well as with the airplane's radio communications.

The FCC cited effects of "frequency re-use," which is a fundamental cell phone principle that's helped mobile phones proliferate worldwide. The signal from a cell phone doesn't go on forever; the energy to propel it dissipates after a number of miles, and it dissipates more quickly if it bounces off buildings, hills and other obstacles. This allows the same frequencies to be re-used by operators in different markets sometimes just a few miles apart.

A cell phone signal falling to Earth from a phone aboard a plane encounters no significant obstacles to slow it down, so it's strong enough to reach the ground and find a network on its particular frequency. But if the airwaves belong to a different operator, there's likely to be "noise" and other forms of interference for everybody, the FCC believes.

Ban, what ban?
The 1991 ban hasn't kept people from using their cell phones while in flight, whether it's to secretly scroll through office e-mail, or
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