FCC proposes allowing in-flight cellular use on airplanes

The plan would let users connect via mobile networks, but airlines could still ban voice calls

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will consider letting passengers use cellular services on airplanes, breaking with a ban that has been in place for years.

At a meeting set for Dec. 12, the FCC will consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to allow passengers to use mobile wireless services "via onboard airborne access systems," according to an agenda for the meeting that was released Thursday.

Both the FCC and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration have long restricted the use of both cell phones and other electronic devices in flight because of concerns about interference with navigation and other onboard electronics. The FAA recently eased regulations on using some electronic devices during takeoff and landing.

The FCC proposal would allow the use of mobile services that are now banned in flight. That would mean passengers could get online and potentially make voice calls over cellular services and not just the in-flight Wi-Fi provided on many flights today. They would access the cellular services via equipment on the plane rather than cellphone towers on the ground. Airlines could still restrict voice calls in flight, just as the major U.S. airlines now ban Internet voice calls via Wi-Fi.

"Today, we circulated a proposal to expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. "Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers."

Passengers would only be allowed to use cellular services above 10,000 feet, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, which cited an FCC official.

An FCC representative could not immediately be reached for comment.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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