FCC considers lifting cell phone ban on planes

The U.S. agency that regulates the nation's communications networks said it will seek public comment on a proposal that will allow people to make phone calls and use mobile data in-flight.

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The Federal Communications Commission is considering green-lighting the use of cellphones and mobile broadband services on airplanes above 10,000 feet.

The agency, which has restricted the use of cellular devices for making phone calls or surfing the Web in-flight, is circulating a proposed rulemaking among its commissioners. The agency will introduce the item at its December open meeting, and will then allow for public comment on the proposal.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said Thursday that it's important for the FCC to keep up with changing technology.

"Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," he said in a statement. "I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers."

The FCC's move comes just weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration said it plans to change its rules for using electronic devices in flight . The agency said it will now lift restrictions so that devices, such as e-readers and tablets, can be used during take-off and landing. But at the time, the FAA said that it would still restrict the use of cellular services in-flight, requiring users to switch their electronic gadgets to "airplane mode," which turns off the cellular radios.

The changes in the FCC rules would now make it possible for consumers to use cellular voice and data services once the aircraft reaches 10,000 feet. These devices will still need to be in airplane mode during take-off and landing.

But even though the rule changes will make it possible for these services to be accessed in-flight, the FCC will not force airlines to allow people to talk on their phones or use cellular data services while in the air. Airlines may still impose restrictions on usage. There has already been a lot of debate surrounding whether people should be allowed to make phone calls while traveling in such close quarters.

The question of whether cellphones could be used on airplanes has come up in the past at the FCC. The agency considered a similar proposal in 2004 and sought public comment. But it dropped the rule changes in 2007 after flight attendants and others lobbied against it. At the time, the FCC said that it lacked enough technical information to change the rules.

Changes to rules restricting cellular service in Europe are also changing. Last week, the European Commission adopted new rules to allow passengers to use devices with 3G and 4G data connections. Previously, the agency only allowed 2G wireless services to be used aboard flights above 3000 meters. But as it is in the U.S., airlines in Europe will ultimately decide whether passengers can use any cellular device while flying.

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