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Rule Allowing In-Flight Phone Calls Clears First FCC Hurdle

A passenger checks his cellphone while boarding a flight in Boston. The Federal Communications Commission is proposing new rules to allow using cellphones for data and voice calls during airline flights.
Matt Slocum
A passenger checks his cellphone while boarding a flight in Boston. The Federal Communications Commission is proposing new rules to allow using cellphones for data and voice calls during airline flights.

Update at 4 p.m. ET: Commissioners Approve Rules Proposal

By a vote of 3-2, the FCC has approved the initial proposal to allow passengers on U.S. flights to use their cellphones for voice calls — something that's been forbidden on U.S. flights. The vote opens the door for further consideration by the commission's five members, as well as comments from the public.

"We need to update this rule for the benefit of consumers and to reflect accurately changing technical realities," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a statement after the vote. "I urge support for an effort to start this process."

The new proposed rules will be published on the FCC website soon, possibly as early as Friday or early next week.

Another federal agency also weighed in on the issue today — the Department of Transportation. Here's what Secretary Anthony Foxx had to say:

"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.

"As the FCC has said before, their sole role on this issue is to examine the technical feasibility of the use of mobile devices in flight. We believe USDOT's role, as part of our Aviation Consumer Protection Authority, is to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers."

Foxx said that the DOT would now begin its own process of review and public comment on the idea.

Update at 5 p.m. ET: Summary Of Changes

From the FCC comes a "notice of proposed rulemaking" that seeks comment on the following proposals:

  • "Remove existing, narrow restrictions on airborne use of mobile devices in the 800 MHz cellular and Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) bands, replacing them with a more comprehensive framework encompassing access to mobile communications services in all mobile wireless bands;
  • Harmonize regulations governing the operation of mobile devices on airborne aircraft across all commercial mobile spectrum bands;
  • Add the authority to provide mobile communications services on airborne aircraft across all commercial mobile spectrum bands to existing Part 87 aircraft station licenses;
  • Allow mobile communications services on airborne aircraft only if managed by an Airborne Access System certified by the FAA, which would control the emissions of onboard portable electronic devices (PEDs) by requiring them to remain at or near their lowest transmitting power level; and
  • Limit authorization for mobile communications services to aircraft travelling at altitudes of more than 3,048 meters (approximately 10,000 feet) above the ground."
  • The agency will also seek comment on related matters, including "the potential impact of the proposals on public safety and national security."

    Our original post continues:

    Americans will soon have a chance to comment on the Federal Communications Commission's proposal to allow in-flight cellphone use on commercial airliners. The agency held an open meeting Thursday to discuss the new rules.

    Today's vote is an initial step toward approving phone use during flights, a process that would most likely take more than a year. The FCC's five commissioners will vote on the proposal today; if it's approved, it would then be posted online for public comment, likely for three months or more.

    If the proposed rules gain final approval, airlines would then decide if they want to allow passengers to use phones during flights. (Some have already said they won't offer the service.)

    Airlines that want to allow phone use would need to license bandwidth for equipment called a pico cell, essentially a base station that handles wireless data and calls. Then they would need safety approval from the Federal Aviation Administration as well.

    Reaction to the FCC's plan has been mixed, at best.

    A recent AP poll found that only 19 percent of Americans support the idea of talking on phones during flights. A large group was neutral, and 48 percent were against it. But the opposition was greater among people who have flown in the past year, with 59 percent saying calls shouldn't be allowed.

    Our post on the story last month generated this top-rated comment:

    "Zombies in their cars, zombies on the street, now zombies in the air. There is no escape," wrote a reader named harry guss.

    And in response to another comment's hypothetical phone call from an airline passenger named "Alice," a reader named Lencho wrote, "This is when I reach over and yank the cell phone out Alice's hand and run to the rest room and flush the dang thing down the toilet."

    In an editorial for USA Today that was timed to coincide with today's session, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sought to ease consumers' concerns. He noted that the proposed change is still in the early stages.

    And he said he doesn't want to sit next to anyone who's on the phone during a flight, either.

    "I certainly empathize with those who don't want to be stuck listening to loud phone conversations in-flight," Wheeler wrote. "Because the airline can block or otherwise control voice calls, there is a technical solution to this concern."

    That echoes a recent post on the FCC's blog by Julius Knapp, head of the Office of Engineering, and Roger Sherman, acting chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.

    The pair stressed that even if the proposal is approved, there are several levels of cellphone acceptance between a relatively silent cabin and endless chatter from passengers telling their families about their trip or checking in with the office.

    Those incremental levels are reflected in the policies of European carriers that already allow passengers to use mobile phones during flights.

    Some have instituted data-only restrictions. Others, such as Virgin Atlantic, place limits on voice calls and charge a steep premium — more than a dollar a minute — for using the service.

    As we noted in November, Wheeler is a former cellphone industry lobbyist whose move to allow more use of phones in plane cabins was welcomed by the Telecommunications Industry Association.

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    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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