FCC vote opens door to end ban on in-flight calls

Measure passes by a 3-2 vote, paving the way for lifting the ban. Ultimately though, the Transportation Department gets final say.

CNET UK

The Federal Communications Commission took the first step toward removing regulations that ban phone calls while in flight. But FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler emphasized that the Department of Transportation, which oversees the Federal Aviation Administration, will have the final say.

At the FCC's monthly open meeting Thursday, the agency voted 3-2 to approve a measure that will open up for public comment a proposal that will lift the technical ban on in-flight cell phone use.

Speaking during FCC's meeting, Wheeler emphasized that the decision to green-light cell phone use is not ultimately the FCC's decision. He said the FCC will determine whether the technical ban is necessary and the DOT will handle what, if any, behavioral regulations are necessary. And ultimately, it will be up to the airlines whether they allow people to talk on their phones during flights.

"The FAA is the expert agency on determining which devices can be used on airplanes," he said at a congressional oversight hearing earlier on Thursday. "The FCC is the expert agency when it comes to technical communications issues. We are not the Federal Courtesy Commission. Our mandate from Congress is to oversee how networks function. Technology has produced a new network reality recognized by governments and airlines around the world. Our responsibility is to recognize that new reality's impact on our old rules."

For over 20 years, the FCC banned the use of mobile devices on airplanes because of their potential to interfere with networks on the ground below. But Wheeler, reasoned that, "If the basis for the rule is no longer valid, then the rule is no longer valid."

Wheeler also noted both at the congressional hearing and during the FCC meeting that he understands why people are concerned about this issue.

"I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else," he said to Congress.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn agreed. She said at the FCC hearing that she is always first in line when traveling on Amtrak for the "quiet car." But she agreed with Wheeler that the FCC regulates communications and not courtesy.

Still, not every FCC commissioner is convinced that changing the rules is the right course of action. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, and Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, dissented. Rosenworcel argued that the thought of allowing people to talk on their phones while they are in flight has so outraged not only passengers, but also flight crews, that she feared approving such a measure would cause safety issues.

It's unclear at this point what the Department of Transportation will do. The agency oversees the FAA and ultimately makes rules on which devices can be used in flight. On Thursday afternoon, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx released a statement which said his agency is looking into whether permitting phone calls "is fair to consumers" or if they should be banned, according to a CBS News story.

The FCC proposal

Wheeler also clarified during the open meeting that the FCC order is not a change in the rules, but rather a proposed rule-making that will seek comment from the public. The measure the FCC approved today only opens the discussion for whether the technical ban should be lifted. The proposal actually has two parts on which it will ask the public to comment.

In the first part, the Commission asks whether the existing prohibition on in-flight phone calls should continue, and whether or not it should be expanded to prohibit transmission on all mobile frequencies. This would likely include frequencies for Wi-Fi.

The second part of the proposal looks at allowing airlines to install new onboard technology that would provide a mobile signal to passengers within its planes and the airline would be able to control the transmission of that signal.

During his comments at the FCC hearing, Wheeler further explained and emphasized that if the FCC does not eventually change its regulation, it will mean that airplane passengers will continue to be unable to send text messages or e-mail over the cellular network while in flight.

He also pointed out that the service itself will only be available if airlines implement certain technology.

What many consumers may not realize is that it's very unlikely that passengers would be able to get a cell phone signal in an airplane without some technology repeating and transmitting the signal in flight. In other words, if you can barely get a cell phone signal in your office or even on a speeding Amtrak train, you won't be able to get a signal without some kind of in-plane repeater on an aircraft that is flying 500 miles per hour at over 10,000 feet. There are no cell towers above 10,000 feet.

Technology that allows airlines to offer cellular service has been used since 2008 by many major airlines in other parts of the world. And it's this technology, which has been demonstrated to resolve the interference problems on which the FCC rules is based, Wheeler said in his congressional testimony.

 

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