FCC Approves Proposal To Consider In-Flight Mobile Calling

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By Bryce Baschuk and Heather Caygle  

Dec. 12 --The Federal Communications Commission approved a proposal to determine if there are any technical reasons why airplane travelers should barred from making phone calls above 10,000 feet.

Separately, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Dec. 12 that his department will now look into prohibiting in-flight mobile calling. Foxx said while the FCC's role is to examine the technical feasibility of making calls during flight, the DOT has to consider if allowing the policy change is fair to consumers.

The FCC will consider circumstances under which airlines can install airborne access systems that connect passengers' wireless devices to commercial networks. For more than two decades, the commission has banned in-flight use of mobile phones due to concerns that their use could interfere with terrestrial wireless networks.

The proposal would prohibit the use of in-flight wireless services unless airlines take two affirmative steps:

• apply for modifications to their aircrafts' communications authorization, and

• install and operate an airborne access system to manage in-flight use of mobile wireless devices.


Technologies currently exist that can be installed directly on an airplane to prevent interference with terrestrial networks. Companies like ViaSat Inc. have designed onboard communications systems that can provide in-flight mobile calling for JetBlue Airways Corp.

3-2 Partisan Vote

“Nothing will be different with your flight tomorrow,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat. “This proposal spans the inference protection rule that has banned usage in flight for over 20 years--that rule won't change,” he said. “But there is a need to recognize that here is a new technology” that “prevents the interference that the original rule was designed to eliminate.”

“We are cutting away the technological underbrush on behalf of consumers and competition,” Wheeler said. “What we are doing today is saying 'here is a proposal.’ We ask you all to comment and we are asking you all specifically what you are commenting on.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said she was not happy with the proposal but said she would approve it nonetheless. “Given the anger this proposal has generated and the negative response of so many of those who work on planes, I fear that our safety would be compromised,” she said. “This is not acceptable.” Rosenworcel is a Democrat.

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the “robust debate about mobile phone call etiquette in-flight should not stop the FCC from removing outdated and unnecessary technical rules.”

Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai dissented on the decision because he said it was not in the public interest. Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly also dissented on the item.

Pai said the proposal did not adequately address public safety and national security concerns related to terrorist attacks and air rage incidents, among other concerns. “I believe that it is premature for us to endorse one specific proposal today, especially the flawed one that is contained in this item,” he said.

DOT Steps In

Transportation Secretary Fox said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA, “USDOT will now begin a process that will look at the possibility of banning these in-flight calls.”

“As part of that process, USDOT will give stakeholders and the public significant opportunity to comment,” the statement said.

Foxx and Wheeler spoke by phone Dec. 12 to discuss the next steps regarding in-flight wireless communications rules.

“Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight - and I am concerned about this possibility as well,” Foxx said.

Lawmakers Vexed

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation Dec. 12 banning mobile calls during flight. The bill would not prohibit passengers from using devices for things other than phone calls, including texting, if approved by the FCC, and flight crews would be exempt from the rule.

“Keeping phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it is certainly enshrined in common sense,” Alexander said in a statement.

The Alexander-Feinstein bill is just the latest step by lawmakers expressing strong disapproval to the FCC possibly lifting the ban on in-flight calls. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) introduced similar legislation Dec. 9.

Several other lawmakers sent letters about the possible regulation changes and called on FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to maintain the current ban. Reps. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) and eight other lawmakers said they opposed the use of voice services on airplanes but said the FCC should permit consumers access to text, email and data applications in-flight, according to a letter sent to Wheeler. “It is our understanding that the technology itself offers the airlines the flexibility to deploy a system that can allow data only,” the letter said. “We would strongly support that goal.”

Mixed Industry Reactions


The wireless industry said the FCC “correctly determined the first necessary step is to investigate whether or not it is technically feasible to operate devices without causing harmful interference to avionics or to wireless networks on the ground,” according to a news statement from Scott Bergmann, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association. The group said it plans to weigh in on the proper way to manage potential interference into wireless carrier networks, evaluate proposals for spectrum licensing and for safeguarding the rights of existing licensees.

A spokesman with Airlines for America told Bloomberg BNA the group will work with Congress, the FCC, FAA, DOT and its members to “ensure that we can safely provide the type of connectivity our customers want today and in the future, along with the quality and comfort they expect when they fly.”

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Hudson Crossing, told Bloomberg BNA that allowing voice calls on planes “elevates the risk of air rage among passengers, as well as a further decline in the overall quality of the air travel experience. A quiets airplane cabin is a happy airplane cabin.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Bryce Baschuk and Heather Caygle in Washington at bbaschuk@bna.com and hcaygle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com