By Alina Selyukh and Karen Jacobs
WASHINGTON/ATLANTA Nov 21 The U.S. Federal
Communications Commission is considering allowing airplane
passengers to use their cellphones for calls and text messaging
during flights, setting up a challenging debate over technical
and social implications.
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration said it
would allow expanded use of electronic devices aboard planes,
ending a long-standing ban. But the devices are still not
allowed to connect to any ground networks and FCC rules have
long banned the use of cellphones aboard.
The new proposal, to be voted on at the FCC's Dec. 12
meeting, would let the airlines decide whether to allow
passengers to make phone calls, send texts or otherwise using
their own wireless data and call services - although still not
during takeoff or landing.
"Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air
safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our
outdated and restrictive rules," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said
on Thursday in announcing that he has circulated the proposal.
But the battle could turn out to be a lengthy challenge as
experts warn that passengers are not too welcoming of the
prospect of listening to their neighbors chatter during flight.
Delta Air Lines, for instance, said on Thursday it
would not allow cellphone use even if the FCC approves it,
citing an "overwhelming sentiment" in customer feedback against
voice calls in flight.
United Continental and Southwest Airlines
also said their customers have expressed concerns about
cellphone use during flight. Both carriers said they would study
any changes the FCC might make.
"Passengers overwhelmingly reject cell phone use in the
aircraft cabin," the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union
said, urging the FCC to not proceed with its proposal. The union
expressed concerns that the conversations could be a distraction
during emergencies and imperil safety.
Some experts also questioned whether the new rules would put
a virtually impossible burden on flight attendants to ensure
that cell phones are on but disconnected from the networks
during takeoff and landing before the plane reaches 10,000 feet.
In fact, concerns about use of cellphones have already once
killed a similar push at the FCC to relax its ban. The agency
reviewed the matter from 2004 to 2007 - in the era predating the
widespread use of smartphones and gadgets connected to wireless
networks through providers such as AT&T Inc, Verizon
Communications Inc or Sprint Corp.
The Telecommunications Industry Association, which
represents makers and suppliers of communication networks, said
it supported the FCC decision.
The five-member FCC will vote on the new proposal and then
collect a new round of comments. It would eventually finalize
its rules in conjunction with the FAA, which last month relaxed
the rule that electronic devices be shut down during takeoff and
FCC officials say the new proposal would impose some
technical requirements for airlines that decide to allow use of
Experts point out that the technology already exists to
collect phone calls and route them to the ground, solving the
problem of having to jump from one cell tower to another to
complete the call. Some airlines in Europe, the Middle East and
Asia already allow in-flight phone use, FCC officials say.
The FCC in May also started deliberations on a proposal that
would offer a new type of in-flight broadband service promising
passengers higher Wi-Fi speeds and better connections.
U.S. air travelers can already access the Internet on some
flights. But the speed of such service, which rely either on
connections with antennas on the ground or satellites, is slow.