Debate Over In-flight Cellphone Calls Takes Off

January 17, 2014

in Travel Tech

  • SumoMe

(Our story on how to use Apple’s “Siri” for trip planning, originally scheduled to run today, will instead appear next Friday so we could bring you the following important update on the FCC’s proposal to allow in-flight cellphone calls and texting.)

Three weeks ago in a story entitled “The Talk About In-Flight Cellphone Use,” we reported that the Federal Communications Commission decided by a 3-2 vote to ask for public comment on its existing rule banning in-flight cellphone calls.

No Phone in Flight

(Get Down Flickr Photo)

Two days ago, the FCC began the first of two 30-day periods for such comments to be filed. If you thought that the public outcry generated by the proposal to relax the cellphone call ban was breaking the sound barrier last month, except it to be ear-shattering now.

Proposed FCC Action

In its “FAQ on Proposals to Expand Consumer Access to Inflight Mobile Services,” the FCC says:

“The FCC has proposed rules that, if adopted, would give airline carriers the ability to allow passengers to use their mobile wireless devices, such as cellphones, to communicate with cellular frequency equipment while flying above 10,000 feet. Ultimately, if the FCC adopts new rules, it will be the airlines’ decision, in consultation with their customers whether to permit the use of data, text and/or voice services while airborne.”

Those FAQs make it clear that even if the FCC changes its rule, airline passengers won’t necessarily be “entitled” to make in-flight calls.

The FCC is merely considering whether there is a technological reason for prohibiting such calls, not whether airlines or passengers actually want non-stop mobile phone yakking to occur.

The 10,000’ Altitude Barrier

The FAA has already decided that portable electronic devices can be used during all stages of flight for purposes other than voice/video phone calls or text messaging, not merely when planes are flying at an altitude of 10,000’ or higher. (Note that Wi-Fi equipment aboard aircraft, other than those flown by Southwest Airlines, may not operate at lower altitudes.)

But if the FCC allows in-flight cell phone calls and text messaging, it may only permit such activity when planes are operated at least 10,000 feet.

How to Comment on the Proposed FCC Rule Change

You can file a comment on the FCC proposal to allow in-flight cellphone calls either online or by mail (addressed to FCC Headquarters, 445 12th St. SW., Washington, DC 20554).

Comments must be submitted by Valentine’s Day (February 14, 2014). Reply comments are due by Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17, 2014).

What’s Being Said?

According to this story in The Wall Street Journal, to-date very little support has been expressed for permitting for in-flight cellphone calls, and airlines are unlikely to foot the cost of outfitting their planes with the equipment needed to place such calls over wireless carrier cellular networks.

As we previously reported, the federal Department of Transportation could take action to prevent in-flight cellphone calls and Congress could enact its own legislative ban, either of which could render moot any FCC decision allowing airlines to permit passengers to make such calls.

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