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FCC seeks input on proposal to allow cell phone usage in flight

Posted by: Tim Harlow Updated: December 12, 2013 - 11:34 AM

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing new rules that would allow airline passengers to make cell phone calls, place texts and use other mobile devices while in flight.

If approved, the current FCC ban on using wireless devices would be lifted and the decision on what type of wireless data services passengers could use while flying above 10,000 feet would be left up to individual airlines. Carriers would not be mandated to allow it, the FCC said.

The FCC will hold a public hearing Thursday afternoon in Washington D.C. to accept public comment on the proposal. It also will accept input on its toll-free number at 1-888-225-5322 or in writing. Comments can be faxed to 1-866-418-0232 or mailed to the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division, 445 SW. 12th Street, Washington, D.C. 20554.

While customer demand for wireless service has been rising, a majority of Americans say they are opposed to relaxing the rules which have been in place for more than 20 years. In a Quinnipiac University poll out this week, 59 percent say phones and other devices should remain powered off during flight while only 30 percent favored their use. Support for the mute button is strong among all groups, even voters 18 to 29 years old, who oppose phones on planes by a margin of 52 percent to 39 percent.

The ban on cell phone use was put in place to protect against radio interference to cell phone towers on the ground. But technology that can prevent such interference can be installed on aircraft and has been used in other countries without incident, the FCC said.

The proposal aims to give airline passengers the same communication access in the air that they have on trains and buses or in coffee shops.

Airlines would have to equip planes with special antennas approved by the Federal Aviation Administration before passengers could start talking. Without the antenna, "the prohibition remains," said Julius Knapp, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology and Roger Sherman, acting chief of the agency's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.

Even if airlines install the equipment and allow passengers to use cell phones and wireless devices, carriers would have the final say on whether to provide the service and how. They also would have the ability to program a system to not handle voice calls (while allowing text, email, and web browsing). In addition, systems can also be turned off if necessary for safety announcements and emergencies, the FCC said.

"To be absolutely clear, the FCC is not proposing to mandate that cell phone use be permitted aboard aircraft," Knapp and Sherman wrote on their blog. "Many are concerned that adoption of this proposal will result in a less-enjoyable travel experience caused by other passengers engaging in unreasonably loud phone conversations during flight. As frequent flyers ourselves, we understand and empathize with these concerns, but it is important to keep in mind that it is not within the FCC’s jurisdiction to set rules governing concerns about passenger behavior aboard aircraft."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler testified in favor of repealing the ban during a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday. He said his agency sees no technical reason to ban calls on planes.

A petition against the idea was launched on the White House Web site. Meanwhile, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, introduced legislation earlier this week that would ban calls while in flight.

“For passengers, being able to use their phones and tablets to get online or send text messages is a useful in-flight option," Shuster told the Washington Post. "But if passengers are going to be forced to listen to the gossip in the aisle seat, it’s going to make for a very long flight. For those few hours in the air with 150 other people, it’s just common sense that we all keep our personal lives to ourselves and stay off the phone.”

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